LILONGWE, MALAWI - Malawi is distributing personal security alarms to people with albinism, a condition that causes whitening of the skin from lack of pigmentation. Malawi authorities hope the alarms will protect albinos from attacks by people who believe their body parts have magical powers. But the alarms have only a limited range, raising doubts about their effectiveness.
Vendor Chipiliro Laston was nearly abducted in March by three men pretending to be police officers.
The men said they were searching houses of villagers suspected of keeping albino body parts, which are used across East Africa for so-called "black magic."
Laston was saved when the men failed to produce identity cards and villagers handed them over to the real police.
Speaking about the incident, Laston said “I realized that I can be killed any day because of the way those people came. I was extremely terrified, and I realized that I am being stalked. So, since that time, I still live in fear.”
Police say at least 25 albinos have been killed in Malawi since 2014, and albino graves are often robbed – not for possible jewelry but for bodies.
So-called witch doctors use albino body parts in potions or rituals believed to bring good luck, love or wealth.
Malawi authorities this year reacted to public pressure by distributing mobile personal security alarms to the country’s estimated 10,000 albinos.
Mary Navicha, Malawi’s minister for gender and disability, says it’s all about safety.
“As [the] government, we are trying to create [a] conducive environment for the persons with albinism, that’s why we are distributing security gadgets for them to be protected and for them to be safe in their communities.”
The alarm sound is activated when the wearer pulls a safety pin but can only be heard within a range of about 100 meters.
Sheriff Kaisi, political scientist at Blantyre International University, doubts the effectiveness of the sound.
“You can agree with me that even the sound is not so alarming that people can say ‘There is something happening.’ And it is not in our tradition as Malawians that in many cases that when we hear the sound of an alarm, people start rushing to see what is happening over there,” Kaisi said.
Malawi police and local leaders are trying to educate people to react to any alarms.
Laston says he feels a little safer with the alarm on, but the limited range deters him from traveling to earn money, so he is struggling to put food on the table.
Malawi’s albinos initially refused the alarms when they were first offered in May because authorities labelled them as gifts from President Peter Mutharika.