With help from students at the USC Gould School of Law, two Tanzanian teenage sisters have been granted asylum in the United States. Tindi Mashamba and Bibiana Mashamba were born with albinism, a genetic condition that inhibits the body’s ability to produce melanin, a pigment that protects the skin from the sun and enables it to take color. Due to their white skin, the sisters were targeted and attacked in their home country of Tanzania. After both of their parents had passed away, the girls’ home was invaded and Bibiana’s leg and two fingers were cut off by poachers and sold. Fearing for their lives if they had to return home after their tourist visas expired, the sisters were very happy that their asylum was granted and that they would be able to attend school in California.
Unfortunately, this horrific case is not rare. Albinos across Tanzania and East Africa live their lives in fear as they are persecuted and discriminated against. Thought to bring good luck and wealth, their body parts are sold to witchdoctors, or ‘mgangi’ (1). Tragically, since the first documented murder of an albino in Tanzania in 2006, the situation has escalated (2). Although the witchdoctors once used hair, fingernails, and urine of albinos to produce their charms and magic potions, they have now turned to use the arms, legs, bones, inner organs, and genitals of albinos (3). Children are sometimes even stolen from their mother's arms by traffickers. According to the United Nations, the most dangerous country for albinos worldwide is Tanzania where 156 have been attacked, mutilated, or killed since 2006 (4). Since many attacks are never reported, the number is believed to be much higher. Tanzania has the highest rate of albinism in the world with an estimated 1 in 1,400 children born with albinism, compared to a worldwide rate of 1 in 20,000 (5).
Lacking education surrounding the medical condition has resulted in superstitious beliefs that have been deeply imbedded into the culture. In Tanzania, albinos are described as immortal spirits, and people attribute supernatural powers to them. Although some believe albinos bring luck, others believe that they are curses that result from having sex with an evil spirit called a 'tokolosh' (6). Some also believe having sexual intercourse with an albino can cure AIDS which leads to rapes, even against children (7). Albino children are often abandoned by their parents and teased at school. Tindi and Babiana were often beat by their teachers. Many men leave their wives if they give birth to a baby with albinism, and mothers are often advised to poison their albino babies. It is very difficult for them to receive adequate education or find paid work (8).
Another major problem that contributes to this mass human rights violation is the poverty that plagues the region. The basin of Lake Victoria is where many of the murders and mutilations happen (9). Although millions of people around Lake Victoria depend on fishing for their livelihoods, the industry has been struggling for years now (10). It is believed that fishermen are responsible for many of the attacks as they not only make money off the body parts, but they use the witchdoctor’s charms to bring themselves wealth and luck. Albino body parts are traded on the international black market and albino skin can go for £6,000, internal organs for £65,000, and a whole body for £130,000 (11). This is a lot of money for someone living in one of the poorest countries in the world. Desperation leads to poachers doing whatever they can to make money, even if it comes at the expense of the basic human rights of others.
Efforts made by the government to stop this persecution have been ineffective. Even though the government of Tanzania has banned witchdoctors, it will not end the problem. Since witchdoctors are very common and many politicians frequent them, they are not going to go away with simply a ban. Corruption in the government enables the attacks on people with albinism. Elections are a frightening time for people in Tanzania. The director of Under the Same Sun in Tanzania, which fights for the rights of albinos worldwide, has said that mgangas have admitted that they help politicians to win elections by making magic potions for them using albino body parts (12). It is very disappointing that the government officials, who should be protecting their people, are contributing to the murder and attacks against people with albinism. In addition, according to the United Nations, in only 1 in 5 cases of albino murder was the accused punished (13). This lack of accountability allows violent criminals to go free and continue to hurt others. It also sends a horrible message to the community that this human rights violation is allowed by the government.
To address the attacks and discrimination faced by those with albinism in the region, the first-ever United Nations-sponsored regional forum for Action on Albinism in Africa took place in Tanzania in June (14). United Nations independent expert on albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, explained that there are many specific and effective measures that countries have used to help tackle the problems those with albinism face including “having a dedicated office and budget on the issue, creating a telephone hotline to report crimes and threats, regulating 'witchcraft' and traditional medicine practitioners among others” (15). Over 150 people from 28 countries in the region gathered in Dar es Salaam to create a continental roadmap of specific measures aimed at dealing with the human rights issues faced by these people (16). Although it will not be easy to come up with exact measures to solve all the problems, the Action on Albinism forum was a step in the right direction to ensure that those with albinism are no longer persecuted and have their human rights protected.
The persecution of people with albinism for their body parts is not only disturbing, but also a mass human rights violation that needs to be stopped. Stemming from poverty and lacking education surrounding the disorder, the community needs to be educated about albinism and the necessary respect for human rights. Research must also be conducted on why the witchdoctors ask for albino body parts and why the superstitions are so widely believed. In addition, corruption in the government needs to be addressed as the respect for life and laws must come from the top on down. Even though there is no immediate solution for this issue, hopefully Tanzania and other countries in East Africa can address this problem to protect the human rights of all who live with albinism.
(1) Obert, Michael. "'His Blade Was Dull. He Hacked and Hacked. There Was a Jerk, My Arm Tore Off. That's When I Screamed': Tanzania's Hunted Albinos Relive the Horror of Their Limbs Being Stolen by Witchdoctors Who Buy an Arm for £1,000 and a Head for 'double'" Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 16 July 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
(5) Corey, Charlton. "The 'ghost People' of Tanzania: The Albino Community Who Live in Fear of Being Hunted down and Hacked to Pieces for Their Body Parts Which Are Treasured by Witch Doctors." Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
(6) Obert, Michael. "'His Blade Was Dull. He Hacked and Hacked. There Was a Jerk, My Arm Tore Off. That's When I Screamed': Tanzania's Hunted Albinos Relive the Horror of Their Limbs Being Stolen by Witchdoctors Who Buy an Arm for £1,000 and a Head for 'double'" Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 16 July 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
(7) Corey, Charlton. "The 'ghost People' of Tanzania: The Albino Community Who Live in Fear of Being Hunted down and Hacked to Pieces for Their Body Parts Which Are Treasured by Witch Doctors." Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
(8) Obert, Michael. "'His Blade Was Dull. He Hacked and Hacked. There Was a Jerk, My Arm Tore Off. That's When I Screamed': Tanzania's Hunted Albinos Relive the Horror of Their Limbs Being Stolen by Witchdoctors Who Buy an Arm for £1,000 and a Head for 'double'" Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 16 July 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
(14) "First-ever UN Forum on Albinism in Africa to Focus on 'less Talk, More Action'"UN News Center. UN, 15 June 2016. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Djembe | Dreamstime.com - African albino
Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.