When superstition gets under the skin

In Africa, people living with albinism are perceived as ghosts and live with constant fear of being killed. Down To Earth talks to those who sensitise the world about this medical condition

By Subhojit Goswami
Published: Saturday 20 August 2016
Credit: CHeitz/Flicker
Credit: CHeitz/Flicker Credit: CHeitz/Flicker

Albinism and abject discrimination

Women who want to marry the men of their choice, politicians who want to be elected, miners drilling for gold, fishermen who want a good catch and football players who want to win competitions, all look for one cure: people living with albinism (PWA). In Africa, the people who are born with pale white skin due to a rare genetic mutation are either maimed or killed for witchcraft rituals. Since 2011, 294 attacks and 187 killings of PWA were reported across 26 African countries. Even in death, they are not safe as their remains are robbed from graveyards.

Persecution of PWA linked to beliefs

Those who survive, remain uneducated, unemployed and unaccepted. The gruesome trade, wherein PWA are killed and sold to witch doctors, has its origin in animism which asserts that all living things have a spirit. The belief that there’s a potential magical and superstitious properties of albinos' body parts has gained legitimacy. 

Witchcraft, which according to Simeon Mesaki, a Tanzanian professor, is an “amalgam of beliefs and practices aimed at manipulating nature for the benefit of the lead practitioner or his or her client”, explains albinism as a curse that befall on black parents. Fathers of white children often suspect the mother of infidelity with a white man. Other possible explanation is that the child is the ghost of a European colonist.

The involvement of close relatives in attacks against PWA is also disturbing. In cases of robberies from graveyards, the relatives close to the deceased are involved in identifying them. Hence, persons with albinism are unable to trust even those who are supposed to protect them.

Credit: Under the Same Sun

Lack of awareness

Lack of education about albinism and community sensitisation, especially in the sub-Saharan Africa, has further ostracised these people who already suffer from lack of pigmentation and low vision. Their pale white skin burns easily in the sun, and according to Under the Same Sun—a Tanzania-based NGO that creates awareness and provides support to PWA—about 90 per cent of PWA contract skin cancer by the time they reach 30.

The threat of being abducted compels most of them to stay indoors with no education and employment. Ill-informed parents send their kids to schools meant for disabled children. Many people with albinism and their families do not know the link between sun exposure and cancer. They are not aware of simple precautions like wearing long sleeves and hats to reduce the incidence of skin cancer. Sunscreen, which is not widely available, is often applied to children at night. That defeats the purpose further.

Cancer risk among PWA

Higher incidence of PWA is another worrying trend. In North America and Europe, about one in every 20,000 people has albinism. In Tanzania, the ratio is about 1: 1,400 people. In the north-western part of the country near Lake Victoria, the likelihood of albinism is 1: 1,000.

How effective are laws?

In an interview with DownToEarth, Ikponwosa Ero–the first UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by PWA—says that apart from poverty and beliefs in witchcrafts, it is the “lenient judicial deterrence” that fails to instill fear in the mind of albino-hunters. In her recent report on Malawi, Ero stated that stealing a cow at times attracts a higher penalty than attacks against PWA. In certain cases, possession of body parts has been punished by a fine less than the alleged price of body parts on the black market. With bail being granted to suspects in several cases, a message of impunity is sent to affected communities.

In a bid to understand the enormity of the issue and delve deep into this systemic persecution, Down To Earth reached out to people who have been doing their bit to make world safer for PWA.

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