Albinos are hunted for body parts in Tanzania

In Tanzania albino Africans are hunted by witch-doctors for their body parts believed to have magical properties.

A woman holds her albino child in Dar es Salaam, where 30 murders have taken place this year.
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NAIROBI // It is not easy being an albino in Africa. It is even worse being an albino in Tanzania, where fair-skinned Africans are hunted by witch-doctors for their body parts. At least 30 albinos have been killed this year in the East African country. The lucrative trade in albino fingers, feet, even penises is driving the killings. Many rural Tanzanians still believe in traditional medicine, and a potion made from albino appendages is said to make one rich.

Albinos in Tanzania are scared for their lives. Last week, some from the albino community voiced their concern by staging a demonstration in Dar es Salaam, the capital, urging the government to do more to protect albinos. Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian president, met albino leaders and condemned the recent killings. "These killings are shameful and distressing to our society," Mr Kikwete said in a television address to the nation. "I am told that people kill albinos and chop their body parts, including fingers, believing they can get rich."

Most of the killings have occurred in Tanzania's western region near Lake Victoria. Albinos have fled from the rural areas to cities, such as Dar es Salaam, where fewer people believe in witchcraft. The capital even has an association that lobbies for albino rights, the Tanzania Albino Society. "We need to clear out these beliefs that albinism is the result of a curse put on the family and the witch-doctors should be arrested," said Christopher Dadenekeye of the society that claims 8,000 registered albino members.

The recent albino killings have drawn a lot of local attention and even the interest of the international community. The European Parliament last month passed a resolution condemning the treatment of Tanzania's albinos. "The European Parliament calls on the Tanzanian authorities, local government authorities and civil society in general to collaborate in order to protect all albinos," the resolution said.

Albinism is a genetic disorder that impairs normal skin pigmentation and afflicts more than 200,000 Tanzanians. Albinos, with their pinkish skin and light blue eyes, stand out among Tanzania's population, which is almost all black. They are called "muzungu", Swahili for "white man", or "zeru zeru", meaning "ghost". Some people have long thought that they possessed magical powers, but this recent wave of killings has made life more difficult for albinos.

The violence against albinos is not isolated to Tanzania, although the recent rash of killings is unprecedented in other African countries. Albinos have been attacked in West Africa, where traditional beliefs are still practised. Even Kenya, Tanzania's neighbour, has had a handful of albino killings. In tiny Burundi, where 200 albinos live, an albino man and girl were killed this month. They were found dead with their arms and legs missing, according to local media reports.

The Tanzanian government has vowed to fight the albino attacks. Police have begun escorting albino children home from school. An albino census is being undertaken so that the government can better protect them. At least 170 suspects were arrested last month in connection with the albino killings. Tanzania even has its first albino member of parliament. Al Shymaa Kwegyir was appointed to parliament earlier this year by the president to raise awareness for the plight of the albino community.

"When I was a kid, people used to call me names," Ms Kwegyi said in a recent television interview. "After being appointed MP, some people didn't believe it. They said, 'is an albino lady an MP?' I think those people that called me names now regret it." Abdullah Omar, of the Tanzanian Albino Society, said that having an albino in a high government position sends a positive message to Tanzanians. "This has shown the Tanzanian people that albinos are just like other human beings," he said. "They can hold any position in government. They can do the same thing that others do."

Africa's most famous singer and song writer, Salif Keita, is an albino from Mali in West Africa. When Mr Keita was born, his father threw him and his mother out of the house, and he was ostracised from his village. Albinos in West Africa are considered bad luck. But Mr Keita, 58, went on to launch a successful Afro-pop music career and now sells out concerts in Paris and tours the United States. Mr Keita is also a champion for albino causes. He founded a Pan-African albino association that fights against the deep-rooted superstitions that lead to albino killings.

"I was a social outcast and suffered much from that," Mr Keita said. "People do not understand albinos. There are so many superstitions about them, because people are not educated."