The Fight to Stop Tanzania's Witch Doctors Butchering Albino People
In Tanzania, traditional healers and witch doctors have long considered the body parts of people with albinism as being essential to their magical recipes. These practitioners of muti—or "medicine murder"—believe that their recipes heal the sick and...
Gamariel Mboya is the guy in the hat
Tanzania is known for many things, especially its great food. There is kisamvu, a mixed vegetable dish that goes great with rice; the bamia, a meat and okra stew; and the mchicha, a kind of peanut curry. Yet as tasty as those dishes are, there's another traditional ingredient far more popular with the witchdoctors of Tanzania: albino human. While witchdoctors don't actually eat albinos, the limbs, bones and hair of people with albinism are ingredients in their magical recipes.
Traditional healers and witchdoctors have long considered the body parts of people with albinism as being essential to their magical recipes. These practitioners of muti—or "medicine murder"—believe that their recipes heal the sick and bestow El Dorado-like fortunes on the poor. Men ill with HIV and AIDS have been known to abduct young albino girls, in the belief that raping them might help cure their afflictions. Fishermen often pay hunters for their human wares, believing an albino limb or two might jazz up their fishing nets and attract better catches.
Over 71 people with albinism have been murdered in the last six years. This month, a seven-year-old boy was maimed on his way home from school, attacked by several men who decided they liked the look of his arm.
Sick of this bullshit, the good guys and gals of Tanzania have rallied and responded, forming activist groups made up of people both with and without albinism. I spoke to Gamariel Mboya, a friendly Tanzanian guy with albinism, to find out more.
VICE: Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
Gamariel Mboya: My name is Gamariel Mboya. I am a person with albinism from the southern highlands of Tanzania, in a region called Mbeya. I’m 29 and married. I have a daughter and work for a charity called Under the Same Sun.
What was life like growing up in Tanzania?
Not simple. People with albinism don’t get sufficient support from society, and as a result learn not to trust anyone. We’re not treated like human beings.
A Pew Forum report revealed that more than 60 percent of Tanzanians depend on and believe in traditional healers, who tell them people with albinism have supernatural powers. People believe our bones, our blood, and our hair bring good luck and that women with albinism can cure HIV and AIDS.
How do people with albinism feel about the term "albino"?
In various ways, the word has been used with negative implications and inferences. When I was growing up, even though people knew my name, they still chose to refer to me as "the albino." The term is dehumanizing. That said, many people with albinism refer to themselves as albinos.
Today, we’re trying to encourage people to separate our genetic condition from who we are as people.
How do attackers target people?
They will usually entice children with presents and sweets, pretending to be nice and friendly. They prey on children in the most deceptive ways. Sometimes they hide in bushes, waiting to attack.
When it comes to women, they try to seduce them. They will ask them out on dates and initiate relationships to earn their trust. There have been cases where men have married women with albinism simply to attack them. Recently, in one of the southern highland regions, a woman was attacked by her husband and a group of other men.
When all else fails, attackers resort to the use of guns.
What do they do with the body parts?
These body parts are often found in witch doctors’ houses. Sometimes they are buried in the ground as part of ritual sacrifices, but mostly they are used in charms—they crush and ground the bones to keep them in charms.
Why don’t the police or government officials do anything to stop this?
Firstly, the nature of the country’s legal system means that justice can’t be obtained swiftly. Out of more than 100 reported attacks and killings only five of the accused were found guilty. Two of the cases resulted in acquittals. Secondly, there is no real political will to end the atrocities, and supporting people with disabilities isn’t at the top of the government’s agenda.
That said, in some cases the police do try to help. They can be very effective, investigating attacks and arresting culprits. However, records also show that some policemen have defended attackers and destroyed evidence.
Many believe that attacking people with albinism—who are supposed to have supernatural powers—is an easy way to get rich and amass political power. So you get a lot of wealthy Tanzanians and politicians linked to the muti killings.
There have been so many attacks and kidnappings reported in the news. Are there any especially terrible cases that stand out for you?
There are so many to speak of, but the story of Adam Robert is one I will always remember. He had his fingers chopped off and suffered terrible injuries to his arm, after being attacked on the doorsteps of his home, while his father and step-mother were inside.
Adam was one of two children with albinism his parents had. His father decided to divorce his mother because he blamed her for their albinism. Adam’s mother left the family, and his father was given custody of the children. Adam’s father decided to take them out of school, claiming he was worried about the distances they had to travel and their safety. He put the children in charge of taking care of their home, working on the family compound and grazing for food.
One day, while Adam was working on the compound, he found a strange man wandering around. The man was erratic and began asking unusual questions. This same man kept going back, prompting Adam to tell his father that he had seen the man snooping around before. Not that the father paid much notice. Eventually, the guy attacked Adam.
Adam’s father was arrested for his negligence but has now been released. Adam is even more worried about his safety, now.
Have you experienced similar attacks or discrimination?
I have most definitely been discriminated against. I’ve had to deal with name calling and bullying at school. All my life I’ve been excluded from society because of who I am. A lot of people with albinism are unemployed, and often rejected for jobs because of our conditions.
How do you deal with it?
Silence is one of my greatest weapons, but I also try to be smart and approach people who discriminate against me to educate them about my genetic condition.
I also get a lot of support from my family, especially my wife. Charities like "Under the Same Sun" are great too.
Is discrimination against people with albinism much more prevalent in Tanzania than in other countries?
People with albinism face challenges across Africa. You might not hear about what is going on in other countries because their national press don’t have as much freedom as ours, though.
How does the albinistic community respond?
There are some centers where children with albinism are kept on a temporary basis, but there isn’t enough support readily available. In general there is no strategy or system of protection for people with albinism.
What do you think can be done to improve living conditions for people with albinism?
The government has to recognize the problems we have, create programs and set budgets that will address the challenges we face. We also need to encourage people to think positively about albinism, putting aside all the myths and falsehoods that have caused us so much trouble. If we do that, we can really make a change.
Good luck, Gamariel.
Article amended on 03/03/13.
For more about Gamariel, check out underthesamesun.com
Follow Leke on Twitter: @QuadriSanusi
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