|Under threat: Albinos in Tanzania|
|Written by Nicola Whittaker (1) Wednesday, 02 March 2011 08:02|
This CAI paper discusses the vulnerability of people with albinism in Tanzania by unpacking the human rights abuses they suffer. They are often at risk of being killed. Efforts to protect people with albinism in Tanzania and recommendations for increased protection are presented.
What is albinism?
Albinism is a genetic pigment disorder,(2) characterised by a partial or total absence of the pigment known as melanin, in the eyes and sometimes in the skin and hair.(3) The word ‘albino’ comes from the Latin word ‘albus’ which means white and is often used in a derogatory fashion. The phrase ‘people with albinism’ is a more neutral expression.(4) Please note that use of the word ‘albino’ in this paper is not meant in a derogatory manner. This piece aims to raise awareness of the challenges that people with albinism face in the Tanzanian context.
People with albinism often experience skin and vision problems.(5) They may have poor vision due to the lack of pigment in their eyes, including sensitivity to the sun and bright lights; near or far sightedness and irregular movements in the eye.(6) Skin problems occur in most people with albinism because their fair complexion makes them vulnerable to severe sun burn.(7) It is important to note that albinism describes a group of inherited conditions,(8) therefore, those with albinism experience the condition in different ways. The more common type of albinism simultaneously affects the eyes, hair and skin, but there is a different type of albinism that only impacts the eyes.(9)
The vulnerability of albinos in Tanzania
Albinos in Tanzania (as well as other parts of Africa) are particularly vulnerable to attack due to the witchcraft belief that if one consumes potions made from the body parts of albinos, one’s wealth and luck will increase.(10) Consequently, this belief has created a huge black market for albino body parts. A set of albino body parts, consisting of all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose is said to be valued at US$ 75,000.(11)
There are reportedly 3,000 registered witchdoctors in the Mwanza region of Tanzania,(12) the region of the country that has seen the highest number of ‘albino’ murders. It is a poor region in which local people place high value on traditional beliefs and rely on witchdoctors’ explanations for why they are struck by poverty and misfortune.(13)
Ernest Makulilo, Fulbright Scholar, Professor and well-known blogger, argues that ‘albino’ killings in Tanzania can be attributed to illogical thinking on the one hand, and to racism on the other.(14) Makulilo considers the witchcraft belief that killing ‘albinos’ and consuming their body parts brings luck and wealth to be an illogical belief. He connects witchcraft with politics, stating that the former dominates the latter.(15) Makulilo quotes a Member of Parliament (MP) who claims that even at a political level (as well as in business, mining and fishing) people believe in witchcraft. This means that putting an end to witchcraft and the victimisation of people with albinism is intimately tied up with the complexities of the political sphere.(16) The unnamed MP claimed that the high demand for ‘albino’ parts during election years in Tanzania is underpinned by the belief that ‘albinos’ have magical power that bring luck to inter alia politicians during elections.(17)
Makulilo furthermore refers to racism to explain the high rate of ‘albino’ killings. He distinguishes between institutionalised racism and racism based on socialisation of the youth in Tanzania.(18) Safety and security concerns often prevent ‘albinos’ from accessing education and health care services.(19) Their right to freedom of movement is also severely curtailed by the fear of being attacked and killed. Many Tanzanian ‘albinos’ have consequently fled the country in search of safety, or resorted to recluse lives.(20) Tanzanian children are socialised to categorise ‘albinos’ negatively.(21) It has even been documented that some families murder their own ‘albino’ children to avoid living with the stigma that the child would attract.(22)
What is being done to protect people with albinism?
Early in 2009, the Tanzanian Government launched a countrywide exercise calling upon all citizens to come forward with names of people they knew or suspected to be involved in ‘albino’ killings and trade in their body parts.(23) The purpose of the exercise was to enable the Government to hand over names to the police force to initiate investigations and ultimately curb these killings in Tanzania.(24) The Government also banned witchdoctors from practicing, but laws mean little when they are neither supported, nor enforced.(25)
Outside of Tanzania, the international community tries to protect people with albinism who have fled their countries of origin. These protection obligations arise from international and regional conventions and domestic legislation. The United Nations (UN) 1951 Refugees Convention and 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention, play important an role in legally binding the international community to protect people with albinism. Spain recently granted asylum to an ‘albino’ man, Abdoulaye Coulibaly, who fled Mali in search of protection.(30) It is reportedly the first case in which the Spanish Government has granted asylum to an ‘albino’ person from Africa (31) Illustrating a shift how albinism is treated by the international community. His asylum claim was based on the fact that he faced persecution in his home country, including kidnapping attempts and the inability to find work due to social prejudice.
That this kind of discrimination has not been eradicated is disappointing and a grave human rights concern. Despite some positive steps being taken by the Tanzanian Government and across the globe to protect ‘albinos,’ they continue to live in fear. Both Tanzania and the international community need to make serious commitments to raise awareness about this matter. Tanzanians need to be sensitised and educated so that discrimination against and the murder of ‘albinos’ can stop. Anti-discrimination campaigns would be a good starting point. The international community should speak out against albino killings and step up and provide asylum to albinos who in search of protection.
(1) Contact Nicola Whittaker through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit (