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Human body parts don’t create wealth

Thursday September 17 2009

Kazungu Kassim, head of a Burundi albino association, listens to proceedings inside a courtroom in Ruyigi, eastern Burundi, May 28, 2009.  REUTERS

Kazungu Kassim, head of a Burundi albino association, listens to proceedings inside a courtroom in Ruyigi, eastern Burundi, May 28, 2009 Three people had been charged for allegedly murdering albinos to sell their body parts for use in witchcraft REUTERS 

This week’s kidnapping and eventual murder of a six-year-old Sudanese boy, Emmanuel Agwar Adar, in Nairobi was gory as it can be. But they rubbed it on cutting off his tongue.

Emmanuel’s murder comes barely a month after the city’s taxi drivers took to the streets to protest the murder of their six colleagues in mysterious circumstances.

The taxi men claimed all the victims had their private parts chopped off before being dumped in the outskirts of the city.

Although there was no official confirmation, the drivers’ say these murders could be related to a mix of occult and extortion.

Witchcraft hasn’t disappeared from African culture just as it refuses to go in the West. For centuries, human body parts have been used as ingredients for magical concoctions and charms. To obtain body parts, performers of these dark arts kill people in order to harvest specific organs for use in the occult.

Things haven’t been easy for them with the advent of the nation-state in Africa where murder is a capital offence, meaning witchdoctors can only acquire these body parts from underground organ hunters.


Demand for human skin

Cases similar to that of the Kenyan drivers, where people disappear mysteriously, only for their bodies to be discovered several days later minus various body parts are so many in the continent today that they are treated as routine crimes in some countries.

According to the South African Police Service Research Centre reports, there is a belief that body parts taken from live victims are rendered more potent by their screams, which means victims must be subjected to pain before death.

Ritual killings have been reported in Mozambique where the country’s Human Rights League has blamed them on the proliferation of witchdoctors from western Africa. Authorities have also confirmed that although most of the organs trafficked in that country are for transplants, extraction of organs for witchcraft purposes also happens.

Human skin appears to be one of the most sought-after things by ritual killers in Africa.

During the early 2000s, there were widespread cases of people being killed and skinned in Mbeya region of Tanzania and Mwiki outskirts of Nairobi. Investigations by the media and police revealed there was a high demand for human skin in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa where it fetched $2,400 (Sh180,000) to $9,600 (Sh180,000) depending on the age of the victim. In an effort to raise awareness about the trade in human skin Tanzania’s chief government chemist’s office kicked up a storm at an international business fair in Dar es Salaam by displaying skin and other human body parts.

Nigeria has the highest number of occult killings in the continent. Not surprisingly, the vice has found thematic expression in the country’s vibrant film industry. According to Nigerian authorities, the killings are perpetrated by people commonly known as headhunters, who act at the behest of juju men.

Murdered in London

Cases of children being abducted and ritually slaughtered are so many in southwest Nigeria that they sparked a spate of murderous protests and mob lynching early last year that left more than 20 suspected kidnappers dead.

The murder in London of a Nigerian kid, which British police named “Boy Adam” for lack of positive identification, in September 2001, brought to international attention to Nigeria’s ritual killings.

Forensic examinations on Adam’s torso, found floating in River Thames, revealed that he was a native of Yoruba Plateau in Nigeria and the state of the cadaver indicated a style of ritual killing practised in West and Southern Africa.

Although this case came about barely ten days after the September 11 terrorist attack on the US, it prompted such a huge media coverage that retired South African President Nelson Mandela and Nigerian soccer star Nwanko Kanu joined the rest of the world in appeals for clues leading to the arrest of Adam killers.

But even after the arrest of 22 West Africans in Britain and an aggressive campaign by Metropolitan police in Nigeria to track down the boy’s mother, the case was never resolved.

A confidential report by the police afterwards established that children were being trafficked into the UK from Africa and used for human sacrifice. The report also claimed that “for spells to be powerful it required a sacrifice of a male child unblemished by circumcision”.

Increased unemployment, poverty, food shortages, famines and greed for money are some of the reasons blamed for the recent surge of deaths attributed to human sacrifice in Uganda. The frequency of the killings is especially high in the country’s poor north and eastern regions.

Although in 2008 alone more than 300 cases of ritual related murders cases were reported to the police, only 18 of them made it to the courts. The situation was made worse by the fact that several of the high-profile suspects arrested in these cases were parents and relatives of the children victims.

“My experience working with victims suggests that the perpetrators are greedy people who want to get rich quick. In rural areas, people can sacrifice their own child. In urban areas, educated and rich people will look for somebody else’s,” says Elena Lomeli, a volunteer with the British charity VSO.

The situation has been so bad that in January 2009, the Ugandan government appointed a special police taskforce on human sacrifice and announced that 2,000 officers were to receive special training in tackling child trafficking with the support of US government.

These incidences have prompted Bakayambira, a renowned Kampala theatre group, to come up with a production called Baffesa Iwa feza. In the midst of its humour, the production carries a strong condemnation of ritual killings. However, all these murders take a backseat compared to the killings of albinos in Tanzania.

Believed to have magical powers to attract wealth in a short time, albino body parts are a hot commodity for sorcery and witchcraft in that country.

Derogatorily referred to as zeru, ghost in Kiswahili, people with the pigmentation defect in Tanzania are not, in certain cases, safe even among members of their own families.

A 35-year-old man in Lake Tanganyika was accused of trying to sell his 24-year-old wife to Congolese businessmen for $2,000 (Sh150,000) while in Mwanga District a mother was alleged to have sold her albino baby girl to a group of men who slaughtered her and drunk her blood.

Danger lurks everywhere

“They are cutting us up like chickens. Our biggest fear now is the fear of living. If you leave work at night as an albino you are unsure of reaching home safely. When you sleep you are unsure of waking up in one piece. In the streets you hear people plotting how they can get you,” lamented Zihada Msembo, Tanzanian Albino Society secretary general.

The case of Elizabeth Hussein, a 13-year-old girl from Shinyanga, is a testimony to the plight of albinos in Tanzania.

After leaving home alone to watch a film about Jesus in the village centre, the girl had signed her own death warrant. On her way back, she was waylaid and hacked to bits by a machete-wielding mob.

Official reports in Tanzania indicate that 35 albinos were murdered in 2008, mostly women and children, but leaders in the Tanzanian albinism community believe the number of deaths could be higher. The situation is so bad in some areas that children with this genetic defect have to be escorted to and fro school by community or government bodyguards.

Even in death they are not safe. Heavy rocks have to be placed on graves to deter grave robbers.

The growth of mining and fishing activities in the Lake Victoria regions of Mwanza, Shinyanga and Mara regions has led to a sudden rise in demand of albino body parts. Besides the three regions being known for witchcraft, some miners and fishermen believe that albino body parts cause instant success.

Fishermen for instance, have this macabre belief that if they weave strands of red albino hair into their nets, fish will be attracted by the glimmer. Although poverty and ignorance are the major causes of these barbaric acts, Nigerian films are being accused of touting the efficacy of witchcraft.

Reports also indicate that albino body parts harvested in Tanzania are being exported to neighbouring countries where they fetch higher prices. In one instance last year, a Tanzanian trader was intercepted travelling to the Democratic Republic of Congo with an albino baby head in his luggage. On further questioning the man confessed that a businessman was going to pay for the head by its weight. In North America and Europe one in 20,000 people have some form of albinism but in Tanzania it’s five times as common with one in 4,000 being albinos.

Although various sources put the number of albinos in the country at around 300,000, the WHO says the number hardly exceeds 170,000.

The wave of killing sprees has led to many albinos seeking refuge in the remote Ukerewe Island on the shores of Lake Victoria where murders are rare. Albinism is a hereditary lack of melanin pigment which protects the skin, eyes, and hair from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But there is a myth in the lake region that a mineral in a native fish causes the high levels of albinism.

Al-Shaymaa Kwegyir, Tanzania’s first albino MP, launched a spirited campaign in 2008 to sensitize the public on these heinous acts.

In October 2008, albinos staged a demonstration in the city of Dar es Salaam to raise awareness and many people supported it. But that same evening one of the demonstrators was followed home by unknown assailants who chopped off her hands and left her for dead. It’s that bad.

During his monthly television addresses to the nation Preside nt Jakaya Kikwete has dwelt on the issue at length in several occasions, urging Tanzanians “to discard superstitious beliefs and shortcuts to wealth” and instructing the police to crackdown on traditional healers involved in the albino killings. May 4 is National Albino Day in Tanzania and draws representatives with albinism from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa and United Kingdom.

During last year’s Albino Day forum in Dar, the Albino Association of Kenya chairman, Alex Munyere, urged Tanzanian authorities to stop the killings before they spread to Kenya.

However, albinos in Burundi, affected by the killing wave in Tanzania, got a moral boost when eight men charged with killing albinos in the town of Ruyigi were sentenced to life imprisonment.

“I think it will reduce the amount of attacks on albinos in our country,” Mr Kazungu Kassim, spokesman for Burundi albinos, told journalists.

The stature of ritual murders and witchcraft in the past was reinforced by the rise of leaders like Jean-Bidel Bokassa and Idi Amin who, from their public utterances and evidence discovered in their homes after their ouster, had an affinity for human body parts.

Although the reason for ritual killing is squarely blamed on witchcraft, ignorance, poverty, greed for money and power, the quest to overcome diseases like HIV/Aids also contributes to the escalation of this barbarism.

In Swaziland for instance, a country weighed down by intricate traditions and superstitions, police and the press have reported an upswing in ritual murders during electioneering periods.

“It’s a form of sympathetic magic where the life force of the victim is sacrificed to give power to the recipient” says Dr Thandie Malepe, director of the National Psychiatric Centre in Manzini, the country’s commercial capital.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.