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In Tanzania, storm rages over albino killings

Saturday December 27 2008

Ms Mumbi Ngugi, a Nairobi lawyer and the

Ms Mumbi Ngugi, a Nairobi lawyer and the Managing Trustee Albinism Foundation of East Africa, with children living with albinism. Photo/FILE 

By PATTY MAGUBIRA, SUNDAY NATION Correspondent in Mwanza

Dickson Kiligo has never felt as terrified ever since he was born with albinism in Dar es Salaam 18 yeas ago like he did this year.

Albinism refers to abnormal pigmentation in the body hair, skin or eyes resulting from a defective melanin synthesis.

For months now, this fairly common condition has been the cause of deadly fear in Kagera, Mara, Mwanza and Shinyanga regions of Tanzania, with people living with it targeted for witchcraft-associated killing.

More than 30 people living with albinism have reportedly been killed countrywide this year by people said to be looking to harvest their body organs.

Police statistics show that women are the No. 1 target — 101 out 109 of victims of such attacks have been female. Even Children are not spared.

Mariam Emmanuel, 5, was killed in a night attack at Nyamikona village in Misungwi district early this year. The attackers are said to be assigned by traditional healers who claim that the body organs have a healing value and are useful as charms that can make one rich overnight.

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Small-scale miners

Anglers and small-scale miners in the Lake regions seeking to overturn their fortunes reportedly consult the traditional healers for the charms. The incidents have made people living with albinism not only live in fear, but they are also suffering social isolation, which is in some cases self-imposed.

Dickson, the only child in his family, has had to trim down his list of friends, including his girl-friend, to save his skin. Even close associates, he says, may find it easy to betray one for the blood money.

He completed his secondary school education in Dar es Salaam in 2006, and returned to Mwanza where he is currently determined to use a local version of hip-hop music, popularly known as bongo flava, to fight the dangerous beliefs.

He first performed along with Ajira Sadru Kyoba, an 18-year-old girl who also lives with albinism, at the Bwiru grounds in Mwanza, where hundreds of residents gathered after a 5km march against the killings.

“I have a boyfriend and I trust him, but I cannot allow him to take me out,” said Ajira. “The killers could use the millions of shillings they mint to lure my boyfriend.”

Reading a statement on behalf of a youth group, Michael Yindi, an evangelist living with the condition, said the judiciary is to blame for the killings, as only one suspect arraigned in court so far has been convicted.

“Many suspects have been arrested, yet hardly three cases involving the murderers are currently being heard in the courts countrywide,” he added.

Yindi said albinos are fed up with rhetoric from government officials, and that they were waiting to see action taken against the perpetrators, including government officials said to be colluding with the killers.

Young men and women with melanin deficiency also fear marriage, arguing that they do not trust their potential spouses, he adds. He cited a case in which, he said, a man sold his wife who lived with albinism.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania called on the business community to confirm or deny the allegation that some of them are involved in the killings.

Pastor Emmanuel Makalla called on the government and Tanzanians to use the festive season to condemn the killings and resolve that the wave doesn’t extend into 2009.

The government should also screen herbalists and suspend those implicated in spreading unfounded beliefs, Pastor Makalla said.

“If left unchecked, people with such beliefs will continue singling out other groups in society, including people born with six fingers or gaps in their front teeth,” he said.

He was apparently referring to the latest reports that the albino killers in the Sumbawanga region were also hunting for people with brown teeth and others with lines of their palms forming the letter N.

Registered herbalists, however, have come out in defence of themselves, saying that the reports are not only misleading, but are also meant to smear their “profession”.

Their representatives argue that the main reason behind the killings is inheritance of property, particularly farms and livestock. But they admitted that a few people whom they called bogus traditional healers, are fuelling the killings by masquerading as fortune-tellers.

The herbalists suggest that their unscrupulous counterparts be banned.

“Owing to lack of employment opportunities, some are exploiting the practice to eke out a living,” said the deputy secretary of the local board, Verina Ndallo, also a councillor in Magu district.

“Bogus traditional healers are abusing the opportunity of alternative treatment granted in 2002,” said former Mwanza regional police commander Zelothe Stephen, at a recent conference held to discuss the killings.

He blamed divine boards-card readers, locally known as wapiga ramli, for fuelling the killings and the residents for easily buying into unfounded beliefs.

Alternative treatment

“Alternative treatment does not comprise ramli,” he said. Chapter 18 of the 1928 Ordinance may be invoked to punish the masterminds and their accomplices, he added.

NGO Concern for Elderly blames the killings on artisanal and small-scale miners operating at informal mining sites. Studies conducted by the NGO, which advocates the rights of among others, people living with albinism in the area, show that witchcraft beliefs are widespread in mining.

Executive chairman Jamathon Magodi says the miners consult fortune-tellers whenever they consider themselves unlucky.

The fortune-tellers eventually give them weird conditions, including providing albinos’ body organs, should they stumble upon abundant mineral deposits.