Why albinos are being killed in record numbers

By Max Bearak

Cassim Jaffalie,3, stands with his friends at their family home in Machinga about 200km north east of Blantyre Malawi. Photo / AP
Cassim Jaffalie,3, stands with his friends at their family home in Machinga about 200km north east of Blantyre Malawi. Photo / AP

Over the past year and a half, a disturbing and violent trend has been growing in Malawi, a country often known by its nickname: "The Warm Heart of Africa".

At least 18 people with albinism, a congenital condition resulting in a lack of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes, have been murdered, and many others have been raped or harassed. Four of the murders happened in April alone, and five more albinos have been abducted and are still missing.

A new report from Amnesty International accuses Malawian police of failing to protect the albino population, and the Malawian Government of failing to educate its citizens about albinism's natural causes.

Albinism is more common in sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere in the world. Superstitions about the condition are rife, especially in Malawi and neighbouring Tanzania and Mozambique.

Some believe that having sex with an albino woman can cure HIV, which puts albino women at particular risk for rape. Others believe that the bones of albino people contain gold, or have medicinal or even magical properties. That demand, stemming from a ritual medicine revival in Malawi, is fuelling the spate of murders by gangs that, allegedly, can make as much as US$75,000 selling a "full set" of albino body parts, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Separately from Amnesty, the United Nations recorded at least 65 cases of violence against albinos, including but not limited to killings and dismemberment, since the end of 2014.

Ikponwosa Ero, an independent expert who works with the United Nations on issues around albinism, told Al Jazeera that she thinks albinos in parts of southern Africa face extinction.

"I said that this will happen over time if nothing is done," she said. "The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces which push people to do things for profit."

In a vacuum of public knowledge about the causes of albinism, many albinos are shunned by their families, and parents are often baffled by giving birth to albino children.

The abductions and killings, some of which have been particularly gruesome, have instilled a culture of fear in the albino population. While Amnesty says that the police have done little to combat the rise of so-called "albino hunters," the police say they are doing everything they can. Last year, Malawi's inspector general of police authorised his officers to shoot any suspected "albino hunter" on sight.

- Washington Post

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