As Tanzania gears up for October 25 elections, the demand for good luck charms is rising. And so is the danger to albinos: Some people mistakenly believe their unusually white body parts hold mystical powers – perhaps enough to guarantee victory in the polls.
Fear of being attacked for their limbs and other parts is driving albinos – people who lack pigmentation in their skin, hair and eyes – into hiding. They face amputation and even death.
At least four have been killed since Tanzania’s electoral period began, according to the Tanzania Albinism Society. The United Nations estimates that, since 2000, at least 74 in the East African country have suffered violent deaths at the hands of witch doctors and others seeking good luck charms, Reuters news agency reports.
The congenital disease afflicts roughly one in 20,000 people worldwide and is more common in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Reuters, it affects about one out of every 1,400 Tanzanian. The country is thought to have approximately 30,000 people with albinism, making it one of the world’s largest such populations.
A terrible trade
Edward Severino, program officer for the society, said buyers driving the trade in illegal body parts are seldom caught.
"We don’t know who is the real buyer," even among those who have been caught, Severino said. "… The witchdoctors and those who are really involved in cutting those body parts have been caught, not the buyers."
United Nations experts estimate prices can range from $600 for a part to as much as $75,000 for a whole corpose, the French news agency AFP reports.
Since 2009, 155 cases of violation of albino rights have been reported to Tanzanian authorities, according to a recent study released by Under the Same Sun (UTSS). The Canadian-based NGO combats discrimination against people with albinism.
The organization operates safe houses for albinos under threat, such as a Tanzanian woman attacked in September.
"The people who cut my hands live in the same village as I do," she said in Swahili.
She asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety. She said her attackers included "a neighbor whom I lived next to for quite a while. So when they came at night to cut my hands, by good luck I was able to identify him. But he has not been apprehended and he’s been set free and is back in the village along with his accomplices so my safety is not guaranteed."
Across the border in western Kenya, the situation also is getting worse. Two weeks ago, Margaret Migalusia’s elder brother, an albino, was murdered.
"We are afraid that most of the albinos will be targeted by being killed so that those leaders who want to win can take their parts to the witchcraft and they win the elections," she said.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this report.