Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Discrimination against albinos is a serious problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but recently in Tanzania it has taken a wicked twist: At least 19 albinos, including children, have been killed and mutilated in the past year, victims of what Tanzanian officials say is a growing criminal trade in albino body parts.
Many people in Tanzania — and across Africa, for that matter — believe albinos have magical powers. They stand out, often the lone white face in a black crowd, a result of a genetic condition that impairs normal skin pigmentation and strikes about one in 3,000 people here. Tanzanian officials say witch doctors are now marketing albino skin, bones and hair as ingredients in potions that are promised to make people rich.
As the threats have increased, the Tanzanian government has mobilized to protect its albino population, an already beleaguered group whose members are often shunned as outcasts and die of skin cancer before they reach 30.
Police officers are drawing up lists of albinos in every corner of the country to better look after them. Officers are escorting albino children to school. Tanzania's president even sponsored an albino woman for a seat in Parliament to show that "we are with them in this."
Salvator Rweyemamu, a Tanzanian government spokesman, said the rash of killings was anathema to what Tanzania had been striving toward; after years of failed socialist economic policies, the country is finally getting development, investment and change.
"This is serious because it continues some of the perceptions of Africa we're trying to run away from," he said.
But the killings go on. They have even spread to neighboring Kenya, where an albino woman was hacked to death in late May, with her eyes, tongue and breasts gouged out. Advocates for albinos have also said that witch doctors are selling albino skin in Congo.
The young are often the targets.