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
Last Updated: Tuesday 30 August 2016 | 16:03:21 PM
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.

“Dignity of PWA is attacked through daily discriminatory practices and verbal abuses”

Deprose Muchena (centre) is Amnesty International’s regional director for Southern Africa. He is the key spokesperson on all aspects of human rights strategy, growth, development and communication. In an interview with Down To Earth, he talks about discrimination against PWA in Malawi and effectiveness of criminal justice system across Africa

What kinds of attacks are the people living with albinism subjected to?

Our research mirrors the experience of People with Albinism (PWA) in Malawi. Attacks in Malawi range from abductions of women and children at home in the night by criminal gangs, resulting in chopping of arms and other body parts using machetes and other bland or sharp objects. Graves are being dug out to extract dead bodies of PWA so that the attackers can take the bones. This violence against PWA is aided by the absence of visible policing in the remote rural areas.

In one of the cases covered in our report, a young woman fought the machete-wielding gangs until a gang member attacked her arm with a machete in order for her to let go of her child. In January 2016, Eunice Phiri, a 53-year-old woman, was waylaid by a gang, working with a close relative, into a false journey which required them to travel early morning. She was ambushed and her body was discovered with missing parts days later.

The other attack is directed at the dignity of PWA through daily discriminatory practices and verbal abuses. They are being ridiculed in public places and referred to as “money”, “aids cure”, “fake white person” and “spirit”. They face discrimination in employment opportunities and access to schools and health services. The PWA are at risk of skin cancer because they do not have access to sun screen lotions. Mothers giving birth to children with albinism are not properly educated on care and support for such children. In schools, kids do not have hearing and visual aids. So, most of them struggle through school.  The criminal justice systems do not help because of various loopholes that have created a culture of impunity, ranging from infective penalty regimes to limited expertise in dealing with these kinds of crimes. This further feeds into the attacks, abduction and killings.

Is it only superstition that’s leading to attacks on people? Which are the worst-hit countries?

Superstitious and deep-seated false cultural beliefs about PWA certainly feed discrimination and attacks. The belief that the bones of people with albinism have lucky charms, that if you sleep with a person with albinism you can be cured of AIDS, the idea that PWA is a spirit that does not die but disappear into the bush and seas, drives attacks and killings.

Absence of visible policing in rural areas, coupled with poverty and ignorance fuels the situation. The witch doctors prescribe methods of healing which includes body parts of PWA. The absence of human rights knowledge and education increases the vulnerability. While Malawi was particularly bad in recent months, other countries such as Mozambique (where 50 PWA are reported to have been killed since 2015) have become a terrible place to live for people with Albinism. Tanzania, for a long time, has been the country with leading deaths of PWA. The government there is acting. But there are over 25 countries in Africa where discrimination of one kind or the other is happening.

What has been the response of the governments so far?

Amnesty International was recently invited by the UN Independent Expert on the rights of PWA, Ikponwosa Ero, to attend a meeting of experts from 29 African countries in Dar es Salaam. This helped in understand the continental experience and sharing our comparative experience. While governments are responding differently depending on their circumstances, there are several lessons to learn from Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, and now Malawi, about how to use the law, provide leadership at the top and work with civil society in general and the community of PWA in order to highlight and educate people and stop the killing.

In case of Malawi, Amnesty International released its research report on June 7 in Malawi. Our meeting with the President, Vice President and six ministers has been encouraging. The President set up a Special Legal Counsel to lead prosecution, amendment of laws such as the Anatomy Act, criminalise sale of body parts and ensure greater coordination between ministries and within the security cluster. The legal counsel was given the task of establishing national multistakeholder task force to deal with this and advise government among other things. There has not been any killing or abduction since our report was launched.

“People are resorting to a new occult economy to obtain wealth and success”


Peter Ash is the founder of ‘Under the Same Sun’, a Tanzania-based organisation that chronicles cases of torture against PWA across sub-Saharan Africa.  In an interview with Down To Earth, he talks about the need for accepting PWA in a society.

What’s the origin of this concept that PWA are evil spirits with magical powers? Who all have perpetuated this idea?

We don’t know for sure how this idea originated. What we do know is that this practice existed even during the pre-colonial days (before 1961). We talked to people belonging to pre-colonial days in Tanzania and they tell us that this idea was very much in practice.

This notion that the people with white skin are evil spirits is very much there in animism, a dominant religion in most parts of Africa wherein the followers worship the spirit of their ancestors. When you have not been introduced to modern medical science, you tend to believe the spiritual explanations usually given for events happening in daily life.  

The villagers have their local spiritual advisers who consider albinism as an aberration. They also consider these white people to be blessed with spiritual endowments. When tribal chiefs die, one of those with white skin will be killed and his body will be put inside the grave of the tribal chief to accompany him to the other world.

People with albinism are often fed to the volcano to pacify it. In rural Africa, albinos are being sacrificed as villagers believe that these white-skinned people can appease the god of the mountain every time there’s is a fear of a volcanic eruption.

Has your organisation tried to find out how strong is the clout of witch doctors in Tanzania?

Tanzania, from the time of independence in the early 60s, became more socialist ensuring equal treatment to followers of every religion. After the colonisers left, Tanzania had a long brush with socialism. Lately, there has been a transition from socialism to free market economy.  People are now getting to know about the development story in the West and they are now desperate to become wealthy.

The decline of the fishing industry has also prompted people to resort to a new occult economy in order to obtain wealth and success that they are not earning through capitalist endeavours. In a bid to prosper fast, they turn to witch doctors. The witch doctors, in turn, pander to their dreams by assuring them a sudden change in fortune. They would tell, “I am going to pronounce curse on your competitors so that you can prosper.”

How many of them still operate despite government putting a ban on them?

It’s very hard to tell the exact count because most of them operate in very remote areas.

Do you see a possibility of engaging local religious leaders in dispelling myths about PWA, especially in rural areas where illiteracy further deepens superstitious beliefs?

In Tanzania, especially in the north-western part of the country (Mwanza), witch doctors are still a part of the belief.  The people in rural Tanzania may practise Christianity and Islam as their religion but their belief in witchcraft is deep-rooted. They go to church on Sunday and witch doctors on Monday. They neither have internet, nor any academic qualification to educate themselves about the evils that they are encouraging.

There had been reports that political leaders are beneficiaries to these magic powders made of an albino’s bones. What are your observations?

That’s perhaps the major reason why laws are hardly implemented on the ground. We discovered that the law lacks popularity and even most policemen don’t even know that such laws exist. There are some witchdoctors who are registered with the government and police never go after the licensed witchdoctors. Creating laws is just a political move in response to western pressure on them to stop such atrocities.

Coming back to the role of political leaders, one must understand that an arm of an individual with albinism sells for US$3, 000 in black market. Who has that kind of money to buy magic powder?  Price tag tells you who the consumers can be.  During elections, I have seen advertisements on billboards luring the rich and the powerful to try their luck.

“Our appearance has attracted negative stereotypes, myth and fears around the world”

Garth Mullins is a Vancouver-based albinism activist, writer, sociologist, award-winning broadcaster and musician with albinism and low vision. In an interview with Down To Earth, he talks about the need for accepting PWA in a society.

Are PWA fighting a dual battle—physical disability and people's disgust?

Yes, in a way. There is a lot of stigma around albinism. We have low vision, so we face the structural barriers that come with that, especially in societies that are designed for the fully sighted. In sub-Saharan Africa, most of us never see 40 because skin cancer claims us. We have no natural protection from the sun. With little pigment, our appearance can be striking, and has attracted negative stereotypes, myth and fears around the world. Across 26 countries, some believe there is a ghostly magic to albinism. Our body parts are believed to bring good luck or health to those who possess them. So our arms and legs have become commodities. In many places, albinism is so misunderstood that you can be ostracised or even killed.

As an activist and a prolific writer, how do you try to make the world less hostile for PWA?

Part of my work is to write submissions to various UN agencies and treaty bodies, showing the discrimination and violence against people with albinism in different countries. I do this research for an NGO, Under the Same Sun, which works to end the attacks in Tanzania.

During your growing up years, you had to struggle to gain acceptance. How did you brush away all insults aside to become what you are now?

I don’t think people with albinism are totally accepted yet—not where I live.  Things are better than when I was a kid, but that’s a lot to do with the fact that I have accepted myself. I still get the insults, but I react with two things: solidarity and humour. I fight to improve things and I try to have a laugh when people get out of line.

There's lot that needs to be done to clean up the scourge of discrimination. Where do we begin?

You work to make the world more socially just. A world that is more accepting of democracy, difference and diversity is better for everybody, including us with albinism. When it is safer for people of colour in the US, refugees in Europe, indigenous people in Canada, and LGBTQ folks in Russia, it is also going to help us too.


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