Five men armed with machetes stormed a home in northwestern Tanzania last month, and ran off with one-year-old Yohana Bahati. Days later, the child was found dead, his limbs severed. He became the latest victim in a spate of murders of the country’s albino population.
The brutal murder of the baby is the latest attack against the albino population. In December, a four-year-old albino girl was kidnapped and remains missing. According to the United Nations, at least 75 albino people in Tanzania have been killed in targeted attacks since 2000.
Although albinos have been persecuted for centuries across much of Africa, they face the greatest threat in Tanzania. Their place in that society is a vexed one: albinos there are largely thought to be bad omens. Their bodies, paradoxically, are believed to be able to garner success and prosperity when incorporated by witchdoctors into rituals or potions. Albinism is a genetic condition that causes a lack of pigment in the hair, skin, and eyes. It affects one in 1,400 people in Tanzania — far more than the one in 20,000 who are born with the genetic condition in the West.
“Attacks against people with albinism, which are often motivated by the use of body parts for ritual purposes…seem to be on the rise,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said after Bahati’s dismembered body was found.
“I call on the Tanzanian authorities to swiftly investigate and prosecute perpetrators of this terrible crime and to strengthen its protection measures for people with albinism, particularly in the lead up to general elections in the country,” he added.
There’s a fear that the October elections might bring only more violence against albinos as politicians seek out their body parts to improve their chances of success at the polls. Others have suggested the uptick in attacks against albinos might have to do with rising food prices, which have made people more desperate for money. Another theory is that an influx in movies that feature witchcraft have raised interest in supernatural solutions to all sorts of problems.
Like my family, if I am not careful, they are able to bargain and sell me. I have found many parents who have been convicted for this. They sold their children to the killers.
Sadly, albino people can bring prosperity to some. Their bodies can fetch up for $75,000 on the black market, according to a study by the Red Cross.
That’s an incredible — and frightening — sum in a country where the average income is just over $600 a year.
“[They believe that] of you get the body parts of an albino, you’ll become rich,” Josephat Torner, a Tanzanian albino and activist told Vice News. “So people started to hunt us like we are animals.”
“We started to live in fear for sure, because community members, family members started to sell their fellows. Like my family, if I am not careful, they are able to bargain and sell me. I have found many parents who have been convicted for this. They sold their children to the killers.”
The two recent kidnappings have raised alarms among some families, however.
The number of albino children at a shelter for children with special needs has almost doubled last month from 115 to 218.
“Here our own guards, a private security company and the police always ensure safety for the children,” Peter Ajali, a coordinater at the shelter told Reuters.
Albino people and their families do not feel safe from attacks, given that even toddlers are being torn from their homes and butchered.
“They used to attack 14- and 15-year-olds and hack off their limbs. Girls were attacked. Aged people were attacked. Now they have come to babies. It’s terrible, really terrible,” Al-Shaymaa Kwegyir, an albino and member of the Tanzanian parliament told the Los Angeles Times.
She doesn’t believe that the ban imposed on witchdoctors in January will help keep albinos safe. Kwegyir believes that more needs to be done to guard albinos and to prosecute those involved in killing them.
More to dispel the traditionally held beliefs about albinos might help too.
A 2010 Pew survey found that although while most people in Tanzania are Christians or Muslims, 60 percent of them believe that certain people can cast spells and curses.
Some believe that albinos simply vanish when they get older — a rumor one albino man undergoing chemotherapy for skin cancer refutes.
“People say we can’t die,” he told the New York Times. “But we can.”