Albinos in some African countries are killed for their body parts in the mistaken belief they have miraculous powers. In Dar es Salaam, the Pan Africa Albinism Conference is campaigning for their safety and dignity.
Representatives from almost 30 African countries will be converging on Julius Nyerere International Convention Centre in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for the first ever three-day Pan Africa Albinism Conference, starting on Thursday (19.11.2015).
Albinism is a hereditary condition which causes a total absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes.
People with albinism face discrimination. Regular attacks on albinos in Tanzania, fuelled by superstition, were described by President John Magufuli as a "national shame" during the recent election campaign.
The supersititions are numerous. Fishermen believe that their catches will be bigger if albino hair is fastened to their nets. Miners are convinced that powdered albino bone turns into diamond when it is buried in the ground. Some believe that albino body parts are charms that bring the wearer riches.
The choice of Tanzania as the venue gives added poignancy to this conference, which the organizers say "will focus on empowering people with albinism."
They don't only face problems in Tanzania. So far this year at least 15 albinos have been kidnapped or killed in Mozambique. The true figure could be a lot higher, because fear prevents the victims from reporting such crimes to the authorities.
"One of our members has already been burgled," says Laurinda Tembe. An albino herself, she campaigns with a group called Àmor a Vida (Love of Life) for albino rights in Mozambique. "In one case, a two-year-old baby was saved by the police at the last moment. In another case, a mother was able to escape [from kidnappers] but her daughter was later found dead," she said.
Traditional healers protest innocence
Traditional healers are often blamed for albino murders. But the spokesperson for Mozambican Association of Traditional Healers (AMETRAMO), Fernando Mathe, denies all knowledge of any such incidents. He said traditional healers would not use body parts because albinos "do not possess anything special that would distinguish them from the rest of us." However, he added that human traffickers misuse the name of the traditional healer for their own purposes.
Many albinos have been kidnapped or murdered in Nampula city in northern Mozambique. It lies close to the border with Tanzania where the government has already declared albinos "an endangered minority." Pedro Cossa from the Nampula police force says the threat to albinos could have come from Mozambique's neighbor but insists that "these crimes are not being committed by foreign nationals." Those foreign nationals do, however, incite Mozambicans to "persecute albino brothers and sons."
The climate of fear is stopping many children with albinism from attending school in Nampula. Their parents recently asked for permission to send their children to a school in Quelimane, which is some 500 kilometers (311 miles) away. This prompted teacher and students in that city to stage a protest against the abuse of albinos. "When albinos are forced to flee for safety in the own country, then we are dealing with a clear violation of human rights," said teacher Shara Ofumane. "The criminals responsible should be punished in accordance with the law."
Prevention and public awareness
A number of kidnappers have already been detained by the police and there have been prosecutions. The government is counting on prevention and has appointed a committee to draw up measures for the protection of people with albinism. The public prosecutor in Nampula has reinstated a commission for the combating of human trafficking. Security along the borders between Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi is to be tightened. Public awareness campaigns about albinism - including radio commercials - are also going to be launched.
Laurinda Tembe remains pessismistic. "We have been calling for equal rights day in, day out, but nothing really changes," she said.
Marcelino Mueia, Leonel Matias and Sitoi Lutxeque contributed to this report.