BLANTYRE, MALAWI - The high court in Malawi has banned so-called witch doctors in a bid to reduce demand for albino body parts. Malawi's albino association has praised the ruling, but traditional healers have vowed to fight it, saying they are not involved in magic or murder.
The high court's ruling last week stemmed from a complaint filed by three residents of the city of Mzuzu in northern Malawi. One of them said she paid a witch doctor a lot of money after he promised a charm that would make her ex-lover take her back.
"One of the clients was complaining that the source of the deaths of albinos in the country is these witch doctors because what they do is that they prescribe body parts of albinos, like bones," said George Kadzipatike, the lawyer for the complainants.
Those false claims have led to an alarming uptick in attacks on albinos in Malawi in the past two years.
The judge issued an injunction against what he called "witch doctors, traditional healers, charm sellers, fortune tellers and magicians," and ads for their services.
The ban will not go into effect until the plaintiffs pay to publish the injunction in local media for seven consecutive days.
Traditional healers, known locally as herbalists, say they will challenge the ruling. They say they are not involved in magic or the trafficking of albino body parts.
"To us, it is unfair because there is no way we can combine human body [parts] and something which is going to be consumed,” said Robins Zaniko, the general secretary for the International Traditional Medicine Council of Malawi. “Because what we mainly give out to people is traditional medicine, which is consumable. We give people [medicine] to drink, to eat so that they can be cured from their various diseases."
He says no herbalist has been among those arrested in connection with recent albino killings.
Timothy Mtambo, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, says banning all herbalists is not the answer.
“You can't say we are banning everyone,” he said. “I would say we should have found mechanisms to make sure that we deal with those that are suspected and prove that [they] are responsible, rather than making a decision which is wholesale."
In Malawi, it is common to consult herbalists for ailments such as mental illness, epilepsy and impotence.
"There are times when we go to the hospitals [and] they tell us that there is no medication, so we instead go to the herbalists," said Mbayani resident Enock Chigalu.
At least 18 people with albinism have been killed since November 2014, and five more are missing, according to an Amnesty International report released this month. Amnesty says police have not done enough to investigate the crimes, and the punishments doled out are too lenient.