Albinos, widely viewed in many parts of Africa as mystical beings, are now the new source of money in Tanzania, where they are ‘hunted down like animals’. Tanzania’s assault on albinos is driven by greed for money and influence, forcing families to turn on their own loved ones in a trade allegedly fuelled by some of the country’s most powerful people.
Albino body parts are believed to be capable of bringing wealth and good fortune, the reason people are willing to pay as much as $3,000 or $4,000 for a limb, or as much as $75,000 for a whole body. It is widely believed that politicians are the ones behind the purchases, given that they are the only people capable of shelling out such sums in the less than prosperous East African country.
People with albinism are regularly attacked by people who hack off their limbs, an act that either leaves them severely mutilated, or dead.
Albinism, a hereditary genetic condition which causes a total absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes, affects one Tanzanian in 1,400, often as a result of inbreeding in remote and rural communities, experts say. In the West, it affects just one person in 20,000.
Since people began collecting records of the attacks, there have been 74 killings and 59 survivors of attacks. Even the dead are not safe: 16 graves have been robbed.
And these are only the recorded cases.
The most recent case saw four-year-old Pendo Emmanuelle Nundi abducted from her home in December.
Her father and uncle were both arrested in connection with her disappearance, but – despite rewards offered of £1,130 and promises of swift action from the police – she has not been found.
Those living with albinism in Tanzania fear the lure of making a couple of hundred dollars – three times the minimum wage earned in the country – is placing them in danger, even from their own families.
‘Now we can see the parents who are involved in planning the attacks. What kind of war are we fighting if parents and family do this? Who can we trust?’ Josephat Torner, who campaigns for albino rights, asked.
Only 10 people have ever been brought to trial for their part in albino attacks or murders – but not one of them was a ‘buyer’.
There are, campaigners know, times when more albino attacks take place. And they know, with the general election coming up in October, now is one of the most dangerous times to be an albino.
The UN warned political campaigners were turning to witch doctors to help them win election back in August. ‘People with albinism are hiding while there are elections,’ said Peter Cash, a campaigner.
Jospehat added: ‘This year we are going to have an election. Since last year, we have been seeing attacks and killings.’
Already, there has been a noticeable increase.
Over the course of just 11 days last year, there were three attacks and two attempted attacks on people with albinism in Tanzania.
One man, thought to be in his early 20s, was found lying dead, his body mutilated, in the grass by some schoolchildren in a suburb of Dar Es Salaam.
The next day, a mother-of-seven was attacked in the Tabora region of Tanzania, losing her arm.
A few days before, 15-year-old Pendo Sengerema was attacked as she ate dinner at home with her family.
They hacked off her right arm just below the elbow, before running off into the dark.
According to Under the Same Sun, a charity, a witchdoctor had received an order from a wealthy client indicating that if Pendo’s arm could be provided, it would garner a price of $600.
The attack left Pendo terrified, begging to be sent away from her village.
‘I am asking the police to move me to a safer place and protect me because bad men might come back to kill me,’ she pleaded.
These ‘safer places’ are the centres set up around the country, where large number of people with albinism are living behind high walls for their own protection.
The camps were established after the first high profile waves of attacks, a knee-jerk response to a terrifying situation.
‘It was supposed to be a short term solution,’ Peter said. ‘But there was no long term plan.’
Years later, they still exist – and now are not just for children: adults are kept behind the camps’ high walls as well.
‘Children who are there, they are living there maybe for seven years without going back to their families,’ said Jospehat.
‘At the end of the day, families or communities do not want to allow them to go back. These children are growing up without any parental care.’
‘If you ask the community why now are they forcing their children to the camps, they are saying it is where they belong. But we are not for the camps: we are for the community.’But the government now appears to be taking action: after widespread criticism of its reaction to Pendo’s abduction, it moved to outlaw the witch doctors behind the killings.
They have not banned traditional healers who use herbs, however.
Attacks and murders of people with albinism are not just confined to Tanzania.
Under The Same Sun has recorded a total of 136 killings and 211 attacks across 25 countries in Africa since they began keeping records.
A total of 33 reports of killings, attacks and grave robberies have been recorded in neighbouring Burundi, with 29 cases recorded in the Democractic Republic of Congo.
In West Africa, cases have been recorded in the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana, while there have also been attacks in southern countries like South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique.
‘These so-called witches bear responsibility for the attacks against albinos,’ interior ministry spokesman Isaac Nantanga said.
But as to whether it will make a difference for those living in fear for their lives remains to be seen.