A lucrative black market exists for the body parts of albinos, who are believed by some to possess magical powers that can bring good luck. But as police in Tanzania crack down on the grisly trade, activists in neighbouring Malawi say attacks have spiked.
Albinos are living in fear of being killed in Malawi, where their body parts are increasingly being sold for use in traditional rituals that promise to deliver wealth and power.
Three albinos – people born without pigmentation – have been killed and mutilated in the southern African country in the first two months of the year, the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) reported.
There were two albino killings in all of 2014 and one in 2013.
One woman was found in January with her head, arms and legs cut off, the government said. Police are also searching for several individuals reported missing.
“We are hunted like animals,” said APAM president Boniface Massah, who campaigns for the rights of Malawi’s 10,000 albinos.
The body parts are often believed to be sold in neighbouring Tanzania, where more than 70 albinos have been killed since 2000.
Tanzanian authorities announced in January that they would crack down on the gruesome trade. They banned the activities of witch doctors who promise to bring clients good luck and fortune to prevent them from making ritual use of albino body parts.
While the practice is condemned by the overwhelming majority of traditional healers, a lucrative black market exists for the body parts said to possess magical powers.
A set of albino body parts – including hands and feet, genitals, ears, tongue and nose – sold for $75,000 in Dar es Salaam recently, according to Tanzanian police.
But after Tanzania began its efforts to curb the practice, activists say the criminals moved to Malawi.
“Those who are in the business of selling body parts of albinos … have established a market in Malawi, because it has become tougher to do business in Tanzania,” Massah said.
Police have not commented on the matter. Several people have been arrested in connection with the recent killings of albinos but they do not include any foreigners.
The spike in the number of slayings has scared many parents of albino children to such an extent that they have taken them out of school, the activist said.
“You are no longer sure you can trust even friends or relatives,” Massah added.
Albinos face threat in many African countries, ranging from Kenya and Burundi to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal.
The rights group Under The Same Sun (UTSS) lists 140 killings, as well as 219 mutilations and other attacks, against albinos in 25 African countries between 1998 and 2015.
The belief in the magical powers of albinos is based on the idea that the birth of a white child to black parents is a supernatural event.
Such a birth can be seen as a curse from the ancestors, and some east African ethnic groups – such as the Sukuma or the Maasai – traditionally killed albino children at birth, according to UTSS.
Among other African ethnic groups, however, albinos enjoy respect.
The Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin believe albinos are under the protection of the god Obatala, who is believed to have created them and to like the colour white.
Belief in magic is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. Malawian newspapers, for instance, frequently run articles on villagers being accused of witchcraft. It is not uncommon to hear stories of politicians or businessmen having accumulated wealth and power through magical means.
Being an albino was difficult in Malawi even before the killings increased. “Being white in a society where the majority is black is not easy,” said Massah, 32, who recalls being called names at school.
Many children have worse experiences, with their fathers abandoning the family because they suspect their wives of cheating on them with a white man, he said.
There have been no known convictions in Malawi for murders or other attacks against albinos in the past four years, according to Massah. In Tanzania, only about 10 people were convicted since 2000, local media reported.
“I am a teacher. I am contributing to the development of Malawi like any other person,” said Emmanuel Mkwapatira, a 43-year-old albino who lives in the southern town of Balaka.
“Is this not enough evidence that people with albinism are also human?”