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East Africa's albino underworld

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Thousands of albino people in East Africa remain under constant security or live completely in hiding to avoid being kidnapped by witchcraft practitioners, Jody Ray Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN Security Watch

Journalist Vicky Ntetema wrote to the BBC from an undisclosed location somewhere in East Africa in July 2008: "I am living in hiding after I received threats because of my undercover work exposing the threat from witchdoctors to albinos living in Tanzania."

Ntetema's work uncovered the emerging markets in Tanzania and neighboring Burundi that demanded the organs and body parts of individuals with albinism, a disorder characterized by a lack or absence of color in the skin, eyes and hair.

"I do not regret it, even if I am very scared," she wrote after submitting a video to the BBC featuring an undercover Ntetema posing as a potential buyer of the 'magick' that would be produced with various albino parts by a practitioner of witchcraft. In the video, she discusses with the practitioner what effects certain albino body parts would have, how she might obtain these parts and the prospects of organs being obtained through a third party who would kidnap, kill and bring the body parts back for a negotiated price.

She now works as the Dar es Salaam bureau chief for the BBC but due to constant threats against her life, Ntetema is still unable reveal her exact location when giving interviews about her research.

While kidnappings and killings of albino people have continued to occur throughout East Africa, Ntetema's work has catalyzed the attention of the Tanzanian and Burundi governments.

"More than 1,000 have been arrested since 2008. These include witchdoctors, businessmen and women, hired killers, members of the clergy, some police officers (released on bail), parents and relatives of the victims. Hitherto, only seven have been convicted and sentenced to death by hanging [including three] for the killing of a 14-year-old boy. This has not yet been implemented, as President Jakaya Kikwete has yet to sign the execution orders," Ntetema told ISN Security Watch.

"One witchdoctor has been linked by DNA samples to more than nine other killings. Those who were named by the convicts in court have not been arrested (one of them is said to be an Honourable) and another, a famous businessman, was released two weeks after he was arrested and nearly a year before the trial. These were named as people who ordered the organs from the convicted witchdoctors," she said.

A Canadian NGO, Under The Same Sun (UTSS), is actively supporting this cause in Tanzania and confirmed Ntetema's findings with ISN Security Watch.

"Other African countries where this is a problem, especially regarding the security of people with albinism, include Kenya and the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. However, in spring 2009, a man with albinism from the West African country of Mali sought refugee status in Spain. He was escaping due to fear of death after his albino brother had been thrown into a live volcano. Furthermore, in China, the infanticide of babies with albinism is very common," Joy Taylor, a media spokeswoman for UTSS, told ISN Security Watch.

International attention

The slaying of albinos in East Africa is just beginning to receive international attention, two years after the increasing coverage of the plight of albinos living in total secrecy or under constant state protection.

On 19 November, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released an official report detailing the plight of albinos living throughout Burundi and Tanzania titled Through Albino Eyes: The plight of albino people in Africa's Great Lakes region and a Red Cross response.

According to the report, the market primarily exists in northwest Tanzania but spills over into eastern parts of Burundi -"the general area between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria."

More specifically, the report states that as of November, "The official death toll now stands at 44 albinos killed in Tanzania and 12 in the eastern Burundian provinces," but notes that "This figure for Tanzania is the one given by police to the special parliamentary committee investigating the killings. Private organizations and some media in Tanzania have put the number higher, at more than 50 deaths."

Additionally, the report notes that according to senior police officials in Dar es Salaam, "a complete set of albino body parts - including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose - was fetching the equivalent of 75,000 US dollars." To this revelation in October 2008, President Kikwete of Tanzania called the practice the result of a "stupid belief."

In Tanzania, the official number of registered albinos is 6,977, but the Red Cross report notes that this figure is the total number of albinos who volunteer to register with the state, so it is likely the true population is greater. According to the Burundi Red Cross and Albinos Sans Frontières Burundi (ASF), there are at least 1,000 albinos in Burundi, but the real number is unknown.

The report aptly notes the mistakes that have been made by western outlets describing east African albinos as "white" or belonging to a specific "tribe," whereas some local and regional superstitions maintain albino children are the ghosts of European colonialists. Some Tanzanian fathers have even been known to abandon albino children, believing that the mother "had been impregnated by a white man or laughed at during her pregnancy by an albino."

Further marginalized, East African children require special care to battle skin cancer often developed before adulthood as a result of their "[acute] vulnerab[ility] to harsh tropical sunlight because of [a] lack (often total) of melanin skin-pigment."

One Tanzanian doctor featured in the report notes that at least "Half the albino children have such poor vision they are learning Braille."

Poor vision clearly leaves one vulnerable to attack and kidnapping, especially in the absence of parental supervision. This has rightly caused the Red Cross to attempt to bolster international support to locate, secure and treat the thousands of albinos across this region in what the organization is calling a "silent emergency" and "small-scale humanitarian crisis."

"East Africa is the only region where the story of albino killings has been revealed through the media. In some western African countries albino babies are killed at birth and older ones are sacrificed to the volcano gods. [...] In Cameroon, children, including those without albinism, are killed during election campaigns for superstitious purposes, but also in China there are reports that babies with albinism are murdered at birth," Ntetema explained to ISN Security Watch.

The effect of activism

An interesting aspect of this coverage is the lack of mention of the criminals that fund contract killers to hunt for, dismember or kill albinos for profit. The Red Cross report explains the formation of the market, stating the governments of Tanzania and Burundi agree that "the use of the body parts of murdered albinos as good-luck charms suddenly came from nowhere and seems to have been the result of a kind of marketing exercise by witch doctors, who are feeling the same economic pinch as everyone else around the world."

But increased activism has helped curtail much of the mutilation and murders of albinos throughout East Africa. In the US, the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) has been raising money and goods to support those in danger throughout East Africa and is currently working to translate its English-language brochures and information on albinism into local languages to be dispersed throughout the region.

So far, UTSS has set aside more than $250,000 for the education of persons with albinism in Tanzania from elementary to university level and is currently exerting pressure on the government to bring criminals of albino killings and any other atrocities to court via its national legal apparatus