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Albino children play under mosquito netting inside a dormitory of the Kabanga Protectorate Center, housed in a walled compound for the Kabanga Primary School, in Kabanga, Tanzania.
Targeted by witch doctors and underserved by government, East African albinos face many challenges.
Part of our weekly “In Focus” series—stepping back, looking closer.
People have been trying to kill Josephat Torner since the day he was born.
In his rural Tanzania hometown, some encouraged Torner’s parents to poison him, saying an albino baby was a curse.
Today, Torner drives the streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, in a Nissan X-Trail with tinted windows to hide his white skin. He says the threat of violence is still real and that, as an albino, “society doesn’t see you as a human being.”
Crime statistics back up his fears. Since 2000, a string of murders has left 72 Tanzanian albinos dead. The killings are believed to have been motivated by a lucrative trade in albino body parts, which some Africans believe possess magical powers.
Last month, a United Nations report on albino persecution put Tanzania at the top of a list of African nations—mostly in East Africa—where albinos are targeted for murder.
“In most of the cases documented, the attacks involved dismembering the victim’s limbs and resulted in death,” the report said. “In a few other cases, the victims were beheaded; genitals, ears, and bits of skin were removed; tongues were cut out and the eyes and the heart gouged out.” (See “Pictures: Inside the Lives of Albinos in Tanzania.”)
The Tanzanian government has taken some steps in the wake of the killing spree, opening shelters for albino children in some parts of the country and commissioning task forces to investigate albino killings. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete appointed the country’s first albino member of parliament in 2008.
But many in the albino community, along with human rights groups and the United Nations, have criticized Tanzania’s government for failing to prosecute those responsible for albino killings and for dragging its feet on the few cases that have actually made it to court.
Only five of the six dozen albino murders in Tanzania cited by the UN report have led to successful prosecutions.
“I cannot say if the killings are still going on or not because these things are happening in secret,” says Josephat, 32, who dons a black baseball hat as he talks outside the Ocean Road Cancer Institute here, which treats many albino patients.
He and other activists say the ongoing violence and uncertainty about the perpetrators has brought the plight of Tanzania’s albinos, which was never easy, to a new low.
“When I was growing up there was a stigma,” says Ziada Ally Nsembo, an albino who helps lead a group called the Tanzania Albino Society. “But people weren’t getting their bones cut—that only starting happening a few years ago.”
Science and Superstition
Though albinism occurs around the world, it is most prevalent in Africa. The World Health Organization reports that as many as one in a thousand people are albino among certain African ethnic groups.
Gauging the size of Tanzania’s albino population is difficult, and estimates vary wildly. The government has undertaken a national survey of albinos but has not released its findings. Albino advocacy groups put the number somewhere above 100,000, out of a total population of roughly 48 million people.
The UN report says simply that there are tens of thousands of albinos in Africa. They suffer from a genetic condition that deprives their skin, hair, and eyes of melanin, making albinos vulnerable to the sun and to bright light. Almost all albinos suffer from poor eyesight and are prone to skin cancer.
There is no cure, and though the U.S. National Institutes of Health says that albinism doesn’t usually affect life span, albino activists in sub-Saharan Africa say their countries’ generally poor health care systems often delay cancer diagnosis and treatments, resulting in early death.
For an albino baby to be born, both parents must carry the gene for it. In parts of Tanzania and other parts of Africa, however, the science is beside the point. Long-standing traditions hold that albinos are ghosts who are cursed but whose body parts can ward off bad luck and bring wealth and success.
“People believe that if you are an albino, you are a magical person—so if it’s that way, why are they killing us?” says Torner, noting the irony.
The superstitions are reinforced by witch doctors, who are still popular in Tanzania and across Africa, even in top socioeconomic ranks. “Even government officials in this county are consulting with witch doctors,” says Erick Kabendera, a prominent Tanzanian journalist who has investigated the killings of albinos.
Kabendera says many victims of albino killings are children, a fact noted in the UN report.
“Some even believe that the witchcraft ritual is more powerful if the victim screams during the amputation, so body parts are often cut from live victims, especially children,” the report says. “The use of children is likely linked to the pursuit of innocence, which, it is believed, enhances the potency of the witchcraft ritual.”
The false beliefs are thought to be especially strong in the Lake Zone, a populous area in Tanzania’s northwest that is a staging ground for huge fishing and mining industries.
Some miners from the region are known to use albino body parts as talismans, burying them where they’re drilling for gold, while some fishermen weave albino hair into their nets.
“The buyers of albino body parts are people who need wealth—they believe it’s an easy way to be rich,” says Al-Shaymaa J. Kwegyir, Tanzania’s first albino MP. “Men ill with HIV and AIDS have been known to abduct albino girls, in the belief that raping them might help cure their afflictions.”
With the body parts believed to be fetching tens of thousands of dollars on the black market, the trade is thought to be driven by the wealthiest members of society.
Kabendera, who has covered the killings for Tanzanian newspapers and has helped produce a documentary about the issue, says that even politicians are thought to be complicit in the murders.
“If a politician needs to win an election, they will consult a witch doctor, but then politicians will blame the fishermen [for murdered albinos],” he says. “They are the scapegoats.”
As a child growing up in rural western Tanzania, Kabendera remembers an albino auto mechanic whom he and his friends would jeer at as the mechanic walked to work each morning. “One day, he just disappeared,” Kabendera remembers, “and no one ever found out what happened to him.”
Because many Africans believe that albinos are ghosts who are immune to death and eventually just vanish, the mechanic’s disappearance didn’t raise eyebrows in Kabendera’s small town.
Years later, after learning about albino persecution, Kabendera remembered the incident: “I think he was killed.”
Explanations for the paltry number of persecutions of albino killers speak to some of Tanzania’s broader problems: an overburdened police force, weak government prosecutors, and police and government corruption. Many here also speak of a society-wide veil of silence around albino violence.
“The evidence is the issue which causes delay for prosecutions,” says Kwegyir, the MP, in an email message. “The police can be very effective, investigating attacks and arresting culprits. But at the end it is said no evidence has been found.”
Friends, neighbors, and even family members often refuse to identify attackers.
“It’s culture that’s within us—it’s sister, brother, parents, people protecting each other,” he says. “I can’t say that I saw you kill an albino because you are my friend. Parents will sell their own kids to a witch doctor for body parts.”
Though anti-albino violence often targets children, those crimes are believed to go mostly unreported.
“Mutilation and murders of children with albinism are mostly met by social silence and indifference,” says a report released last year by the UN’s Special Representative on Violence against Children.
The UN has also cited reports of law enforcement covering up violent anti-albino crimes and taking bribes from witch doctors. Two spokespeople for the Tanzanian government declined to respond to requests for comment.
“We are living in fear because the people have not been found or caught,” says Nsembo, sitting in the portico of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute, which houses the headquarters of the Tanzania Albino Society.
“We don’t know who [the killers] are, and we don’t know who buys them,” she says, referring to albino body parts.
The 60-year-old former teacher dons an olive green headscarf and a deep green dress and is framed by the Indian Ocean, just on the other side of the street, as she talks.
Nsembo worries that stepped-up law enforcement in the Lake Zone has provoked some from the area to come to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s de facto capital, to go “hunting for albinos.”
Zakia Matimbwa, a Tanzania Albino Society member who’s seated next to her, tells of a friend who was recently chased by three men through Dar es Salaam before jumping into a bus and then a taxi to escape.
“You can’t move freely, like other people do,” she says.
Beyond the spate of attacks, Tanzania’s albinos say they suffer from everyday discrimination in schools and workplaces, and in housing.
Yonge, 4, was abandoned by her parents at the Kabanga Protectorate Center in Kabanga, Tanzania. Having albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a lack of pigment in the body, can be a death sentence in Tanzania.
Janet Anatoli, a 28-year-old Tanzanian albino, says teachers in grade school beat her because she couldn’t see the chalkboard, due to impaired eyesight caused by her albinism. Many albinos speak of being socially ostracized from a young age and about the toll it takes on their education.
“My village was my world, and my world was bad,” says Torner, remembering his childhood. “I was the only albino. I was 12 before I met another albino.”
Alfred Nabuli, a doctor who helps run an albinism program at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania, says that many albino children aren’t sent to school and that many of those who are suffer from poor performance.
The hospital runs a training program to teach albinos tailoring and batik dying, since many don’t otherwise go on to vocational schools. Most albinos live in rural Tanzania and work as subsistence farmers, despite the dangerous sun exposure.
“Parents will support a normal-skinned child over an albino child,” Nabuli says. He wants to see albinos “sent to school, at the front of the class, with more hours with teachers.”
The hospital is partly government funded, but Torner faults the government for doing little to challenge misconceptions and superstitions about albinism. “We need awareness raising in society,” he says. “Who are albinos? What causes albinism? The government should have a public education plan.”
At the same time, more albino support networks and advocacy groups have sprung up in recent years.
“Society didn’t know the challenges of people with albinism,” says Nsembo, explaining the impact of the Tanzania Albino Society, founded in the late 1970s. “They didn’t know our needs.”
The society boasts 13,000 members, who talk of “coming out” as proud albinos. Another albino organization, Under the Same Sun, launched five years ago, is headed in Tanzania by the BBC journalist who broke the story about albino killings in 2008.
The group helps finance a lab at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center that recently started manufacturing a sunscreen—the first produced in Tanzania—intended to help albinos ward off skin cancer.
The medical center also does regular outreach to albinos in the region, focusing on cancer prevention by promoting long sleeves, sunscreen, and early detection of potentially cancerous skin lesions. Nabuli says the program has helped drive down the number of albino cancer patients in the area.
There are some other signs of progress for Tanzania’s albinos.
Kwegyir says her appointment as an MP has “exposed my advocacy work to those responsible for making laws,” citing a 2010 law protecting albinos from workplace discrimination. That same year was when Tanzania elected its first albino MP.
But the law, like many in Tanzania, doesn’t appear to be enforced. The government task forces on albinism, for their part, haven’t gone anywhere. And on the medical front, Nabuli notes that there are just ten dermatologists operating in the country, limiting advances in albino medical care.
The first elected albino MP here, meanwhile, has said that he has fears for his safety, after getting a tip that a group with military training was after him.
Dan Gilgoff traveled to Tanzania with the International Reporting Project (IRP).
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