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Witch Doctors Butcher Tanzania's Albinos for 'Lucky Potions'

by Thilaka Ravi on  February 05, 2009 at 5:56 PM Lifestyle News   - G J E 4
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Treading with fear as he walks down a street in northern Tanzania, Alfred Kapole knows that his legs, arms, skin, tongue and hair are worth thousands of dollars to local witch doctors.
 Witch Doctors Butcher Tanzania's Albinos for 'Lucky Potions'
Witch Doctors Butcher Tanzania's Albinos for 'Lucky Potions'

As an albino, he used to have to hide from the sun but now he is also being hunted as an ingredient for "lucky potions" to make people rich, a macabre trade for which more than 40 albinos have been slaughtered over the past year.

"Once we were walking down the street, with the albino society's secretary and treasurer, heading to the hospital for a check-up and some builders started yelling 'Deal! Deal!'" said Kapole.

The chairman of the Tanzania Albino Society in the Mwanza region said the men were arrested but a court later let them off, arguing that it could not be established whether they were guilty of abuse.

"There is too much impunity, this is why we live in fear," said the 46-year-old, his pale green irises flickering laterally behind Ray Charles sunglasses and a black felt fedora covering his hay-coloured hair.

Like many albinos in the East African country, he had to quit his job for fear of being kidnapped, murdered and dismembered.

According to local residents, witch doctors use albino organs and bones in concoctions to divine for diamonds in the soil, while fishermen have been known to weave albino hair into their nets hoping for a big catch on Lake Victoria.

In February 2008, five-year-old Mariam Emmanuel was slaughtered in her bedroom, the youngest victim of a string of murders which has left 43 albinos dead in a year, not counting the newborns killed by their own parents.

Her 12-year-old sister Mindi, a diminutive girl with normal black skin pigmentation, was sleeping in the same room.

"In the middle of the night, three men came with a torch. They told me to shut up or I would suffer the same fate as my sister."

She recounted the story crouched against her mother's lap in front of the family homestead of mud huts, fumbling her filthy turquoise dress, her eyes turned earthbound, as if transfixed on a film on that fateful night.

"I peeped from under the blanket. They grabbed her then one of them pulled out a big knife. One of them slit her throat while the other was holding her down, she was struggling, her legs were like running in the air."

"They collected her blood in a tin, drank it and then cut both her legs off under the knee and clipped out her tongue. They put it all in a bag and ran away," she said.

Her 76-year-old grandfather Mabula was supposed to look after the children but slept right through the butchery.

He buried her inside one of the huts and has since slept over her grave every night, in a gesture of mourning but also to keep away robbers who have been digging up graves across the country to find albino bones.

According to Under The Same Sun, a Canada-based NGO, there are at least 170,000 people with albinism in Tanzania, a country of 38 million inhabitants.

Albinism is a congenital lack of the melamin pigment in the skin, eyes and hair which protects from the sun's ultraviolets, making albinos vulnerable to medical complications.

They are shunned and subject to social discrimination in many parts of Africa, and murders of albinos have also been reported in Burundi.

In Tanzania, some have sought shelter in hospitals in the capital Dar es Salaam but many remain exposed in rural villages.

A few miles from the lakeside city of Mwanza, Mitindo primary school for the blind has become a rare sanctuary for albino children.

Mariam's nine-year-old brother, kicking a makeshift football around the yard, is one of dozens of children enjoying the education and relative safety provided by the school.

"We have 68 children at the moment but numbers are increasing every day, we were not ready for this," said head teacher John Loudomya.

"We have put up a fence and the government is trying to improve security by stepping up night patrols," he said, adding that the school needed supplies of sun lotion for the albinos as well as footballs containing bells for the blind.

The authorities of the east African country have come out strongly against the attacks but the killings have continued and distrust among the victims is growing.

No one embodies this quandary quite like Shaymaa Kwegyr, who is both an albino woman and a member of parliament, appointed last year by the president.

"Who are these people who buy an albino hand for millions of shillings (thousands of dollars)? I don't understand. They are certainly not afraid of government," she told AFP by phone.

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