The Grisly Problem of Africans with Albinism...and What to Do about It

The World Health Organization and U.N. estimate that there are about 700 million people worldwide with some form of disability.  Approximately 400 million live in the developing world – and 80 million in Africa.  In most places in Africa, it's tough to have a disability.  It's tougher still if you're young or female.

And it's much more of a problem still if you have one obvious and identifiable disability: albinism.  People with albinism are characterized by a genetic anomaly resulting in an absence of skin pigment that turns skin dark – their complexion is a pallid white, as is their hair, and most have blue eyes.  They are also susceptible to eyesight problems and are extremely vulnerable to skin cancer from sun damage.  So, on a very black continent, they are easily identifiable, and often for negative reasons.

Generally, although not always, albinism in Africa carries the stigma of the damned – there's no shortage of wild perceptions about why they are who they are.  For example, some Africans consider them ghosts; others think they are born with the condition as punishment for the mother being involved in an extramarital affair with a white person, or because the mother touched somebody with albinism.  Others believe that people with albinism are witches and should be destroyed.

Unsurprisingly, Africans with albinism are often marginalized, discriminated against, and abused in every way imaginable.

One recent report from Mali is illustrative: in a village north of the Mali capital, Bamako, gunmen in the dead of night abducted a five-year-old little girl with albinism.  She was later found beheaded.

This example goes far beyond mere murder of someone perceived to be different.  It's part of a burgeoning trade in albino body parts sweeping across the continent with reports from Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, and Swaziland, among many other states.

And what exactly is this trade all about?

Magic, greed, and primitive belief.

Enter the witch doctor.  Witch doctors hold immense power over the beliefs of many Africans.  It is not uncommon for people to consult witch doctors about medical or relationship issues, to place curses on their enemies, or to seek potions or trinkets thought to bring good fortune.  One of the most powerful of all ingredients for these potions, and parts for trinkets, are albino body parts.

Trafficking in albino body parts means, first and foremost, acquiring albino bodies.  Across the continent, there are hundreds of deadly reports: a teenager with albinism abducted and later found dead with his hands and feet missing, the extremities sold to a dealer; a 30-year-old woman murdered, her eyes and breasts removed for the black-market trade; attackers kidnapping a young girl with albinism, her body later recovered minus her arms and legs.

Until recently, the trafficking dynamo has been Tanzania, where the problem was so entrenched that the Tanzanian government was forced to act.  Between 2006 and 2016, there were 76 killings, 69 other victims who survived attacks but were left mutilated, and a number of grave robberies and attempted robberies of albino corpses.  It goes without saying that continent-wide, these verified reports are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The number of such activities that go unreported from many remote areas is likely much greater.

It would be a mistake to think these heinous crimes against humanity are haphazard events that speak only to ignorance and fear.  To the contrary, the magic, greed, and primitive beliefs around Africans with albinism have spawned an identifiable commercial trafficking cycle that is organized, goal-directed, and efficient.

The cycle begins where all commerce begins: consumer demand.  A customer will approach a witch doctor and explain the problem that needs to be ameliorated.  The witch doctor, with his impressive knowledge of magic, rituals for every occasion, and astute manipulation of the customer's desire for positive outcomes, prescribes either a magic potion or some kind of trinket to be worn by the customer until the problem is solved.  The customer demand and the witch doctor's willingness to participate set in motion a number of vectors to conclude the deal.  The witch doctors have a network of paid scouts whose function is to generally identify potential victims for attack and body part-harvesting.  Every scout, in turn, has a working relationship with a seller, someone close to the intended victim who is compensated for accurate information as to the potential victim's whereabouts at any given time so an attack can be planned in detail.  Once the attack is planned, the abduction and body part-harvesting are carried out by paid attackers who then turn over the parts to transporters who provide the parts to a dealer, who then sells the body parts to the witchdoctor.  Thereafter, the potion or trinket is manufactured and sold to the customer.

While estimates vary, given the secrecy of the black market, there is evidence that the trafficking is lucrative – for example, an albino limb may fetch as much as U.S. $2,000, while an entire body commands prices of U.S. $75,000 and upward.

Obviously, this pressing problem deserves more attention than it's getting.  While there have been some significant changes, they are not enough.  Perhaps the most visible effort is has been in Tanzania, where President Jakaya Kikwete appointed a government minister with albinism, and Tanzanian law was changed, outlawing witch doctors and their practices.  Furthermore, killing a person with albinism became a capital crime.  Elsewhere, the U.N., NGOs, and grassroots organizations are making some headway, but until African governments make a much more concerted effort, people with albinism will continue to be murdered, mutilated, and seen merely as an irresistible commercial commodity.

Here are a few ways African governments can tackle the problem:

1. Africans with albinism need to be protected by their communities and law enforcement much more forcefully than is currently the case.  Communities must take more responsibility for being aware that albinism is a medical and genetic condition rather than something more sinister and must be willing to cooperate with law enforcement at every turn.

2. There must be more regular and effective cooperation among the local and national community, law enforcement agencies, and the courts, which must indict and punish offenders to the fullest extent of the law and, where no such laws exist, create them.

3. The justice system must be emboldened and strengthened to address not only actual physical crimes, but also to address the biased perceptions of all involved.  Leadership here will go a long way to breaking down the negative and deadly stereotypes about Africans with albinism.

4. The quantitative and qualitative extent of the entire problem is currently unknown.  Data need to be gathered and systematically reported to delineate the magnitude of the problem, thereby focusing attempts at reducing crimes against Africans with albinism.

5. International law, to which many African countries subscribe, often contains provisions addressing this type of discrimination and abuse and should be used fully to support national and local law enforcement.

6. Judicial punishments must be consistently enacted.  Currently, for example, while several people have been convicted of capital crimes against Africans with albinism in Tanzania, their sentences have not yet been carried out.

7. While major players in the trafficking of Africans with albinism should be punished accordingly, it is also noteworthy that minor and tangential players should, where possible, be rehabilitated to a more positive view of albinism.

There are many more aspects of this topic that could make a difference for hundreds of thousands of people with pale white skin and hair, but let's start with the above suggestions operating effectively, allowing Africans with albinism at least a chance of taking their rightful and inclusive place in African societies.

Mark P. Mostert, Ph.D. is an academic in Virginia Beach, Va.  markpmostert@gmail.com

The World Health Organization and U.N. estimate that there are about 700 million people worldwide with some form of disability.  Approximately 400 million live in the developing world – and 80 million in Africa.  In most places in Africa, it's tough to have a disability.  It's tougher still if you're young or female.

And it's much more of a problem still if you have one obvious and identifiable disability: albinism.  People with albinism are characterized by a genetic anomaly resulting in an absence of skin pigment that turns skin dark – their complexion is a pallid white, as is their hair, and most have blue eyes.  They are also susceptible to eyesight problems and are extremely vulnerable to skin cancer from sun damage.  So, on a very black continent, they are easily identifiable, and often for negative reasons.

Generally, although not always, albinism in Africa carries the stigma of the damned – there's no shortage of wild perceptions about why they are who they are.  For example, some Africans consider them ghosts; others think they are born with the condition as punishment for the mother being involved in an extramarital affair with a white person, or because the mother touched somebody with albinism.  Others believe that people with albinism are witches and should be destroyed.

Unsurprisingly, Africans with albinism are often marginalized, discriminated against, and abused in every way imaginable.

One recent report from Mali is illustrative: in a village north of the Mali capital, Bamako, gunmen in the dead of night abducted a five-year-old little girl with albinism.  She was later found beheaded.

This example goes far beyond mere murder of someone perceived to be different.  It's part of a burgeoning trade in albino body parts sweeping across the continent with reports from Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, and Swaziland, among many other states.

And what exactly is this trade all about?

Magic, greed, and primitive belief.

Enter the witch doctor.  Witch doctors hold immense power over the beliefs of many Africans.  It is not uncommon for people to consult witch doctors about medical or relationship issues, to place curses on their enemies, or to seek potions or trinkets thought to bring good fortune.  One of the most powerful of all ingredients for these potions, and parts for trinkets, are albino body parts.

Trafficking in albino body parts means, first and foremost, acquiring albino bodies.  Across the continent, there are hundreds of deadly reports: a teenager with albinism abducted and later found dead with his hands and feet missing, the extremities sold to a dealer; a 30-year-old woman murdered, her eyes and breasts removed for the black-market trade; attackers kidnapping a young girl with albinism, her body later recovered minus her arms and legs.

Until recently, the trafficking dynamo has been Tanzania, where the problem was so entrenched that the Tanzanian government was forced to act.  Between 2006 and 2016, there were 76 killings, 69 other victims who survived attacks but were left mutilated, and a number of grave robberies and attempted robberies of albino corpses.  It goes without saying that continent-wide, these verified reports are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The number of such activities that go unreported from many remote areas is likely much greater.

It would be a mistake to think these heinous crimes against humanity are haphazard events that speak only to ignorance and fear.  To the contrary, the magic, greed, and primitive beliefs around Africans with albinism have spawned an identifiable commercial trafficking cycle that is organized, goal-directed, and efficient.

The cycle begins where all commerce begins: consumer demand.  A customer will approach a witch doctor and explain the problem that needs to be ameliorated.  The witch doctor, with his impressive knowledge of magic, rituals for every occasion, and astute manipulation of the customer's desire for positive outcomes, prescribes either a magic potion or some kind of trinket to be worn by the customer until the problem is solved.  The customer demand and the witch doctor's willingness to participate set in motion a number of vectors to conclude the deal.  The witch doctors have a network of paid scouts whose function is to generally identify potential victims for attack and body part-harvesting.  Every scout, in turn, has a working relationship with a seller, someone close to the intended victim who is compensated for accurate information as to the potential victim's whereabouts at any given time so an attack can be planned in detail.  Once the attack is planned, the abduction and body part-harvesting are carried out by paid attackers who then turn over the parts to transporters who provide the parts to a dealer, who then sells the body parts to the witchdoctor.  Thereafter, the potion or trinket is manufactured and sold to the customer.

While estimates vary, given the secrecy of the black market, there is evidence that the trafficking is lucrative – for example, an albino limb may fetch as much as U.S. $2,000, while an entire body commands prices of U.S. $75,000 and upward.

Obviously, this pressing problem deserves more attention than it's getting.  While there have been some significant changes, they are not enough.  Perhaps the most visible effort is has been in Tanzania, where President Jakaya Kikwete appointed a government minister with albinism, and Tanzanian law was changed, outlawing witch doctors and their practices.  Furthermore, killing a person with albinism became a capital crime.  Elsewhere, the U.N., NGOs, and grassroots organizations are making some headway, but until African governments make a much more concerted effort, people with albinism will continue to be murdered, mutilated, and seen merely as an irresistible commercial commodity.

Here are a few ways African governments can tackle the problem:

1. Africans with albinism need to be protected by their communities and law enforcement much more forcefully than is currently the case.  Communities must take more responsibility for being aware that albinism is a medical and genetic condition rather than something more sinister and must be willing to cooperate with law enforcement at every turn.

2. There must be more regular and effective cooperation among the local and national community, law enforcement agencies, and the courts, which must indict and punish offenders to the fullest extent of the law and, where no such laws exist, create them.

3. The justice system must be emboldened and strengthened to address not only actual physical crimes, but also to address the biased perceptions of all involved.  Leadership here will go a long way to breaking down the negative and deadly stereotypes about Africans with albinism.

4. The quantitative and qualitative extent of the entire problem is currently unknown.  Data need to be gathered and systematically reported to delineate the magnitude of the problem, thereby focusing attempts at reducing crimes against Africans with albinism.

5. International law, to which many African countries subscribe, often contains provisions addressing this type of discrimination and abuse and should be used fully to support national and local law enforcement.

6. Judicial punishments must be consistently enacted.  Currently, for example, while several people have been convicted of capital crimes against Africans with albinism in Tanzania, their sentences have not yet been carried out.

7. While major players in the trafficking of Africans with albinism should be punished accordingly, it is also noteworthy that minor and tangential players should, where possible, be rehabilitated to a more positive view of albinism.

There are many more aspects of this topic that could make a difference for hundreds of thousands of people with pale white skin and hair, but let's start with the above suggestions operating effectively, allowing Africans with albinism at least a chance of taking their rightful and inclusive place in African societies.

Mark P. Mostert, Ph.D. is an academic in Virginia Beach, Va.  markpmostert@gmail.com