The thriving commerce of body parts for magic is a death sentence for albinos in Tanzania
They are regarded as the ‘tribe of ghosts’ or ‘the invisibles’. Albinos have suffered appalling treatment at the hands of their own people. They are butchered for their body parts in the disturbingly mistaken belief that they will bring people better health and good fortune. Such is the imminent threat against their lives.
Albinism is a genetic condition characterised by a deficiency of melanin pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes which protects from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In many African nations, but most commonly in Tanzania, being born with albinism is a death sentence.
They are often killed in the streets – mutilated when sighted. Their remains are used in human potions created by traditional healers. These witch doctors hack off the limbs of albinos in the promise of prosperity and healing for the sick. Fishermen on the shores of Lake Victoria weave albino hair into nets, believing that it will result in big catches, while bones are ground down and buried in the earth by miners, who believe that the remains will be transformed into diamonds. “A miner will pour it in the ground where he wants to find minerals,” albino activist Isaac Timothy told NPR, “or a fisherman will pour it in his canoe.”
Genitals are sometimes made into treatments to boost sexual potency, and it is also believed that when a HIV patient sleeps with an albino, he is cured.
Misinformation abounds. Some locals believe albinos are ghosts that cannot die. Others think that they were born into cursed families. There is even a belief that albinism arises as a result of mothers having slept with white men so that the whiteness is passed down.
A complete albino ‘set’, which includes the ears, tongue, nose, genitals and all four limbs, can sell for up to $75,000. Witch doctors have made tens of thousands of dollars from selling potions and other items made from their bones, hair, and skin. Traders sell ‘cures’ in the market of Mgusu. In Tanzania, where the annual per capita income in 2010 was $442, the limb of an albino may sell for up to $2,000.
Last year, officials reported that attackers collecting body parts of albinos for witchcraft hacked off the hand of a seven-year-old boy. The boy, Mwigulu Magessa, was ambushed by the men as he walked home with his friends in Tanzania. He survived but many such victims of ignorance are not so lucky.
In some cases, fathers have tried to murder their own children in the hope of selling them for thousands of dollars – a fortune to the average family in Tanzania. Sometimes the parents are afraid of their children and other times they are forced to give up their beloved offspring because they fear the prejudices of the people in their own community.
Last year, a report on the Kabanaga Protectorate Centre in the town of Kabanaga featured 17-year-old Angel, who was visited by her mother for the first time in four years. When she was born her father called her ‘a gift from God’. But his joy was not that of a new father, but rather the opportunity to profit from her body parts. Angel’s mother, Jacquelyn, managed to deter the father for years, but when Angel was 13 years old he led a group to attack her. Angel got away, but her mother’s own parents were killed in the attack as they fought to protect their granddaughter. Jacquelyn says she will never escape the prejudice that follows her wherever she goes.
Many of Tanzania’s 17,000 albinos have been hidden away by the government in Kabanaga Protectorate Centre. According to the International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent Societies, at least 10,000 albinos in East Africa have been displaced or have gone into hiding. Since the police began protecting albinos, traders have complained that the price of ‘the magic’ has rocketed.
In loving memory of the unnamed photographer of this feature, who was killed in June 2014 and became victim to the very practices he campaigned against.
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