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Malawian albinos under threat

Jan-Philippe Schlüter / soJune 7, 2016

At least 18 people with albinism have been murdered in Malawi since 2014 and Malawian police have documented 69 violent attacks. Now Amnesty International is calling on the government to put a stop to it.

Symbolbild Albinos in Afrika
Image: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

"We are being targeted and killed like animals and it has even complicated our day to day activities in terms of going to school, getting to work and even trusting people around us," explains Boniface Massah, Director of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi. Massah is used to being marginalized and confronted with prejudices.

Albinism is a genetic skin disorder. People affected by it, lack sufficient melanin, a natural substance in the body which gives color to the hair, skin and iris in the eyes. The condition is relatively widespread in many African countries and people living with albinism need to take precautionary measures to protect themselves from the scorching sun. Malawi has up to 10,000 people living with albinism.

"Malawians need to reflect on a fresh understanding of the hardships experienced by this vulnerable group and ensure that people with albinism are accepted," said Massah. In the country, criminal gangs often prey on what they refer to as the "white blacks", a derogatory term for people with albinism. They kill them and sell their body parts to traditional healers. Even graves are frequently looted. According to the UN, there is a lucrative black market for this cruel and inhumane practice. An entire body of a person with albinism can fetch up to 66,000 euros ($ 74,900).

The prospect of acquiring quick money fuels the barbaric hunt for albinos said Simeon Mawanza from Amnesty International. "I have seen images of the victims. And these are images that I would not want to show anyone else because they are gruesome. You just wonder what goes into the head of person who commits such a crime"

Superstition fuels the killings
The widespread belief in superstition in Malawi is to blame for the brutal hunting and the macabre trade of albino body parts. Many people believe that albinos are not living beings but spirits. Moreover, many believe that their body parts bring good luck and prosperity. Some even believe that the bones are made of pure gold.

In 2016, four people with albinism were killed in Malawi. One of them was only two years old. "Baby Whitney was abducted from a room where she was sleeping with her mother," Mawanza explained. "A few days later, they found pieces of the skull, some teeth, and some bloodied diapers which were identified by the mother as belonging to the child." Five suspects were later arrested, one of them being the baby's father.

The government's responsibility

Amnesty International accuses the Malawian government of not doing enough to protect albinos. Offenders are often released after paying a few dollars. Malawians hold their hospitality in high regard. Their country is dubbed "the warm heart of Africa." The killings of people with albinism tarnish the societal picture. During a recent interview with BBC, Malawian President Peter Mutharika attributed the killings to the lack of knowledge: "Superstition, stupidity and ignorance drive men to commit such acts. For me, as a Malawian president, that's terrible. I am ashamed."

Mutharika has announced plans to send officials to neighboring Tanzania to learn from their experiences. Tanzania has experienced similar deadly attacks on albinos which led the government to ban the so-called traditional healers.