Earlier this week, Malawi's inspector general of police ordered his officers to shoot on sight anyone found attacking local albinos, a group increasingly targeted by people who believe their limbs make potent ingredients in good luck charms produced by local traditional healers .
"Shoot every criminal who is violent when caught red-handed abducting people with albinism," Reuters quoted the inspector as saying. "We cannot just watch while our friends with albinism are being killed like animals every day. We do not realize that these people are ruthless, have no mercy and therefore they need to be treated just like that."
Malawi's 10,000 albinos have never had it easy, but they have faced more violence than usual over the past few months. The UN recorded six reported attacks in the first three months of 2015 in Malawi alone, versus two in all of 2014 and one in all of 2013. Some of these attacks have been especially brutal: Recently, a man was sentenced to two years in jail (a rare, if light, conviction for a type of crime often practiced with impunity) for kidnapping his own 11-year-old niece with the intent of selling her body for $6,500. Another man was recently arrested for trying to strangle a 16-year-old albino in the boy's home in February 2015.
"We are hunted like animals," Boniface Massah, the president of the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi, told News24 while talking about the forces driving his people into hiding. "You are no longer sure you can trust even friends or relatives."
The shoot-on-sight order is just the latest in a string of recent attempts to counteract the anti-albino spree in the nation. In early March , the Federation of Disability Association called for stronger legislation to protect the nation's albinos. By mid-March police in Machinga claimed they'd started to clamp down, arresting 14 attack suspects. And toward the end of the month , President Peter Mutharika openly condemned such attacks, calling on security forces to go on high alert, while Minister of Gender, Children, Disability, and Social Work Patricia Kaliati developed a five-point plan for greater education on albinism, community policing, and research into the root causes of the troubling medicinal trade in albino body parts.
Albinism, a congenital disorder caused by a lack of melanin, which gives our eyes, hair, and skin pigmentation, is extremely rare in most of the world, occurring in just 1 in 20,000 people. Yet it is (comparatively) incredibly common in eastern Africa, with numbers reaching 1 in 1,400 in Tanzania . Some African cultures, like the Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin , believe the condition to be a revered blessing. Some, like the Maasai in east Africa , believe it is a curse and have been known to kill albino babies on sight. But many others in eastern Africa , while not going so far as to kill babies, still hold a series of damning beliefs about albinos, connecting them to ghosts and evil spirits . Some suspect that this exclusion, and their inability to participate in traditional farming , can lead to increased rates of albinos wedding other albinos, perhaps explaining the frequency of the disorder in the region.
The belief in the medicinal-spiritual power of albinos is strongest in Tanzania , where advocacy groups have recorded dozens of killings and dozens more mutilations and attempted attacks over the last 15 years. Tanzania's anti-albino killings were brought into the media spotlight most recently after the February slaying of a one-year-old albino by an assailant who struck the child's mother with a machete before dismembering the infant. Because these potions remain costly, and Tanzania remains overwhelmingly poor, many tie this increasing demand to local businessmen and politicians . That may help to explain why, for so long, these attacks were under-prosecuted (like in Malawi).
Tanzania finally started taking great strides to curb the albino trade this year . (In 2009 , the then-Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda did call on civilians and police to kill those attacking albinos, but this vitriol seemingly never translated into appreciable action.) At the start of 2015 , the government banned unregulated traditional healers, cracking down on those implicated in anti-albino attacks. About 225 healers were arrested across the nation, with plans to spread the dragnet further in the future (although most of those arrested have now been released ), and several were sentenced to death in rare, harsh sentences for albino killings. Then last month , Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete promised publicly to crackdown harder in the future.
Some believe that this Tanzanian reaction is responsible for the early 2015 spike in attacks in neighboring Malawi , claiming that since demand remains the same now gangs are just snatching albinos from neighboring countries—a theory as of yet unconfirmed by the nation's police.
"Those who are in the business of selling body parts of albinos," News24 quoted Massah as saying, "have established a market in Malawi, because it has become tougher to do business in Tanzania."
A similar spillover trend was observable in Burundi during the global response to the first proliferation of albino killings in Tanzania seven-to-eight years ago. Locals claim that, until then, Burundi's 600-odd albinos lived largely in peace, until demand in Tanzania created a profitable market for murderous Burundians.
The failure of earlier crackdowns has led albino rights activists to say that Malawi's shoot-on-sight policy will not be enough to curb the killings themselves . They believe that the money is good enough (a full albino body retails for $75,000 in Dar es Salaam according to the Red Cross , while a single body part goes for about $600 ) that the threat of a bullet won't be enough to deter poor populations.
"Killing them on the spot is not going to help us catch the inducers," Reuters quoted Vicky Ntetema of the albino rights group Under the Same Sun as saying recently.
Under the Same Sun believes police should interrogate traditional healers and attackers harder to find the names and backgrounds of those demanding albino-based potions in the first place.
On a similar note, Harold Sunguisa of Dar es Salaam's Legal and Human Rights Center told Afriem last month that "Traditional healers are a catalyst, but the reality is society itself in terms of mindset and beliefs. That should be the authorities' main target."