A Kenya-based group representing albino communities in East Africa says efforts to prosecute suspects in connection with a recent wave of killings in Tanzania and Burundi will not be enough to stop the murders. The group says governments must also do more to eliminate myths about albinism and to educate the public about its cause.
The program director for the Nairobi-based Albinism Foundation of East Africa, Josephine Wangeci, says the long-awaited murder trials taking place in Tanzania and Burundi are a positive step toward protecting the region's albino population.
Seven men are being tried in Tanzania and 11 more are being tried in neighboring Burundi. They are accused of killing albinos and selling their body parts for use in witchcraft.
Wangeci says in recent years, witchdoctors have convinced many people in rural communities that albinos have magical powers and consuming their body parts in potions will bring love and riches.
"In Tanzania, there are so many witchdoctors," said Wangeci. "There is a lot of myth going around, with people saying that you can actually get rich by eating an arm or private parts or legs of people with albinism. There is desperation and a lot of poverty, lack of knowledge and ignorance."
Albinism is a genetic condition that impairs normal skin pigmentation, leaving the skin pinkish-white. In many countries in Africa, discrimination against albinos has been a serious problem for generations.
But about 18 months ago, a killing spree began in Tanzania, fueled by a growing criminal network across East Africa demanding albino body parts.
Since then, more than 40 albinos have had their heads, limbs, and legs chopped off and taken away to be sold for as much as $2,000 for each body part. Some families say they are burying their loved ones inside their homes because people are digging up graves to steal the bodies.
Police in Tanzania are now escorting albino children to school and the government says it is trying to register every albino person in the country.
The police have also made dozens of arrests, but no one has been convicted. There is concern that powerful businessmen, criminal kingpins, and other influential people may be deeply involved in the trade.
The killings have recently spread to Burundi and Kenya. Josephine Wangeci says if governments in the region want to stop the madness, they must quickly find a way to inform as many people as possible about albinism.
"A lot of awareness is needed," added Wangeci . "That happens because of ignorance, lack of education. We need to push the governments to do something about it."
It is not known how many people with albinism are in East Africa, but they are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands.