Albinism marks you for hunting in Tanzania
In the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in October, many people with albinism – a congenital condition that turns one in 1400 Tanzanians “white” with light skin, hair and eyes – are hiding from people who believe their body parts bring good luck.
“I’m worried because so far there have been many attacks”, says Jane, whose name has been changed as only her sister knows she lives in a safe house run by Canadian charity Under The Same Sun for people with albinism.
“Only recently a six-year-old boy who had his arm cut off was brought here and referred to Canada for surgery”, adds Jane, whose right shirt arm hangs empty.
Jane believes her uncle drugged her and chopped her right arm off as she slept at home in her village in Tanzania’s northern lake district three years ago.
Like all the survivors here, her alleged attackers walked free, in a country where the victims of would-be witchcraft are left wide open to attack, and their perpetrators are seemingly immune to prosecution.
“My uncle and brother-in-law were arrested. When I went to the police they asked me to forgive them so that they could release them. I didn’t but they released them anyway”, Jane says.
Tanzania has the strongest belief in witchcraft in Africa, according to US-based Pew Research Center, which in 2010 found that 93 percent of the population believed in black magic.
Vicky Ntetema, Director of Under The Same Sun, says that this belief has not only paralysed democracy, with people blaming their misfortunes and poverty on bad spirits, but also allowed witchdoctors to advocate the slaughter of countless innocents.
“Only seven percent of the population do not consult witchdoctors. If the witchdoctors tell them that you have to bring a body part, even if they say bring the head of your own child, they believe them”, she says.
One boy in the safe house believes that his parents organised for him, aged nine, to have his hand chopped off by a mysterious stranger in his own home. A woman missing both arms says a life-long neighbour did it, and thinks that her fiancé and father of her child arranged for it three weeks before their wedding and months before their second child.
“I doesn’t matter if you’re about to get married, or you’re a fiancée or it’s your wife, they do this”, says Ntetema, listing examples of people with albinism killed on their wedding night, or sold alive to witchdoctors whilst courting.
“Sometimes they have this relationship because they want you, as a person, so that they can sell you to the highest bidder, or they can chop off your organs”, she adds.
But while loved ones may be behind or may be turning a blind eye to these crimes, they are being ordered by witchdoctors and fuelled by the powerful.
They are the only ones able to afford the “so-called magic potion” made up of ground up bones, say Ntetema, a former BBC journalist who in 2008 went undercover and was offered hands and feet of people with albinism for $2000.
The Red Cross has been told that a full set of parts fetches up to $75,000, while Ntetema says that someone recently tried to sell a Kenyan person with albinism alive for $350,000, while two thirds of Tanzanians live in poverty.
“It’s the rich people, it’s the famous people, it’s people with political and economic power who have that kind of money. Whether it’s $2,000 or $75,000 or $350,000 an ordinary Tanzanian cannot afford that”, she says.
For the first time in parliament, Tanzania’s Home Affairs Minister recently issued a warning to MPs not to use witchcraft in their campaigns.
The message was reiterated by outgoing president Jikaya Kikwete last month in Arusha, where hundreds of people with albinism came out from the shadows for a day to celebrate their lives, not dead limbs.
“He said: ‘Don’t believe that an albino part can make you rich'”, says Home Affairs Minister Mathias Chikawe, quoting the President and adding that “anyone believing this needs to go back to school”.
But in a nearby suburb, a man who bites cats’ heads off as he claims that drinking their blood can help him make others powerful, sits in a house that a minister bought him after retaining his seat in 2011 elections.
“He’s coming. We speak regularly by phone, but he’s already come here for this election”, says Dr Manyaunyau, whose real name is Jongo Salum.
Salum, who insists cats have seven hearts, claims to currently have four ministers and two other MPs as clients, but believes that many more come before the elections.
“This is when us witchdoctors get a lot of respect, as all these politicians come running to us”, he says.
Meanwhile, people already trapped in their own pale skins are running to already overcrowded safe houses because others see them better off dead than alive, and themselves better off for it.
* The International Women’s Media Fund (IWMF) supported Hannah McNeish’s reporting from Tanzania as part of its African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.