November 8, 2015
People with albinism face serious dangers in some parts of Africa, where experts say they are at risk of being trafficked for use in witchcraft rituals. Their body parts – sometimes removed while they are still alive – are believed to be imbued with special powers for those who possess them. A law banning witchcraft in Tanzania hasn’t stopped the trafficking of people with albinism there.
NAIROBI, KENYA — Nixon Lugadiru fears for his life. His brother, who like Lugadiru was born with albinism, died in September after he was attacked.
Enoch Jamenya’s ear was slashed, and his fingers were almost cut off. The 56-year-old man had deep cuts around his neck. His family says the attack happened because Jamenya had albinism.
His youngest son found him lying in a pool of blood on the morning of Sept. 11 and alerted other family members, who took him to a hospital. He died from his injuries more than a week later, after being discharged from the hospital.
Jamenya was a widower who lived alone in Gavudunyi village, in Vihiga County in western Kenya.
As his family mourns his death, they are also demanding justice.
“My brother was a quiet and peaceful man. I cannot recall one single incident where he had a fight with someone,” Lugadiru says. “We are devastated as a family because nothing is being done to apprehend his killers.”
Lugadiru says he and other people with albinism fear Jamenya’s killers might attack them, too.
“I’m worried every time I see people staring at me,” Lugadiru says. “I’m worried when they try to touch my skin.”
Myths and superstitions fuel the abduction, trafficking and killing of people with albinism in many parts of Africa. Body parts of people with albinism are believed by some to possess magical powers capable of bringing luck and riches if used in witchcraft rituals. Some even believe that the witchcraft ritual is more powerful if the victim screams during the amputation, so body parts are often cut from live victims, especially children, according to a 2013 report from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The commission received information on more than 200 cases of ritual attacks against people with albinism in 15 countries between 2000 and 2013.
Eight cases of killings or attempted abductions were reported in Tanzania between August 2014 and mid-June, according to a statement from the U.N. resident coordinator in Malawi Mia Seppo. In Burundi, at least 19 people with albinism have been killed since 2008.
Jamenya’s slaying is the first alleged ritual killing in Kenya this year, but there have been cases of attempted abduction, according to officials.
Increased attacks on people with albinism in Kenya and other East African countries have left people living with the condition in fear. Some link that uptick to Tanzania’s Oct. 25 elections. Some candidates engage in witchcraft in an effort to win elections, says Isaac Mwaura, a member of Kenya’s Parliament and national coordinator for the Albinism Society of Kenya. Mwaura also has albinism.
A United Nations human rights expert in October appealed for coordinated action across southern and eastern Africa to protect people with albinism in the run-up to elections in multiple countries.
Witchcraft and related activities have been illegal in Tanzania since 1928. The abduction and killing of people with albinism for witchcraft purposes goes hand in hand with trafficking in their bodies or body parts, which happens across borders.
Countries said to be involved in the cross-border trade of people with albinism and their body parts include Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland, according to a report by Under the Same Sun, an organization that works to end discrimination against people with albinism. As of Oct. 7, the organization had collected 419 reported cases of attacks and killings of people with albinism in 25 countries, though it does not state the period it covers.
A complete set of albino body parts – including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose – fetches the equivalent of $75,000, according to a 2009 report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. That estimate is based on information provided by police in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In Vihiga County where Jamenya lived, people with albinism have appealed to police for protection. The fact that Jamenya’s killers are still at large makes them feel unsafe, says Martin Wanyonyi, national coordinator for the Albinism Empowerment Network, a nonprofit based in the region.
“Nothing much has been done to improve security,” Wanyonyi says. “We must have security agencies working with the albinism community. Perhaps a hotline can be set up in each county so that response to such situations can be quicker.”
He emphasizes the need to educate the public about albinism to stop attacks on the group.
“This murder happened because of misconceptions about people with albinism,” he says.
Police say they are investigating Jamenya’s death and have some leads that could result in the arrest of his killers.
However, they rule out organ trafficking as the reason for his slaying.
“This is not a case of albinism trafficking,” says Robert Nzuki, Hamisi constituency assistant county commissioner. “Enoch was not attacked by outsiders, and there is a mystery we have to solve.”
He says people with albinism are safe because police keep a database on their numbers and whereabouts.
“We know how many they are and where they are,” he says. “For this sub-county, we have 12 people; Enoch’s village had the majority – that is six. They know they are safe.”
According to local media reports, David Ole Sankok, chairman of the National Council for Persons With Disabilities, announced in late September that people with albinism living in towns bordering Tanzania would be relocated to safer places.
But Mwaura says the plan is not feasible.
“It is impossible to move all people living with albinism from their localities,” he says. “No alternative shelters have been established. What people with albinism need is increased security.”
Mwaura lives with two 6-year-old children – Bianca Chacha and Gabriel Kinyanjui – whom he took in after they survived abduction attempts last year.
In September 2014, masked men raided Gabriel’s home and attempted to kidnap him. Gabriel has rufous oculocutaneous albinism, a form that often results in reddish-brown or red-bronze skin and ginger-red hair.
After the incident, Gabriel’s father was forced to guard their home in Taita Taveta County with bows and arrows, Mwaura says. The county sits at Kenya’s border with Tanzania.
In Bianca’s case, her father tried to sell her to witch doctors in Tanzania in October last year.
“Her father approached her mother and tried to convince her that they should either kill her or sell her because he believed she was a curse,” Mwaura says. “Bianca’s mother reported the case to the local authorities in their home in Migori, 22 kilometers (14 miles) off the Tanzanian border. When the case was highlighted by the media, the Albinism Society of Kenya intervened and rescued the child.”
Some parents have had to move to protect their children from traffickers.
Winroe Simiyu, a mother of twins with albinism, says a man she knew began visiting her at her home in Nairobi last year when her husband fell ill and lost his job. The man told Simiyu, who has five other children, that she could get financial assistance if she gave up the twins for adoption.
“He said there was a person who wanted to raise the children and would give me money if I gave them to him,” she says. “He gave me a document written in English, which I could not read, and told me to sign it. He said the document would enable me to get assistance from a charity organization.”
Neighbors who had gotten word of what happened, however, told Simiyu that she had signed an agreement to sell her children. She backed out of the plan.
“The man came again and told me that he had found a witch doctor from Tanzania who was ready to buy the children. He also revealed that he was HIV-positive and (said) the blood of my twins could cure him. But I refused to give them to him because it meant that he would kill them,” she says.
The man continued to pester her, she says. During one of the visits, he took photos of the twins. He also told her he would kill her if she did not give them to him.
Simiyu reported the matter to the local chief, who gave her the number of a police officer to call if the man tried to kidnap them. In June, she also contacted the Albinism Society of Kenya, which moved her and her family and pressured police to arrest the suspect.
The man was arrested and later released on a cash bail, local police chief Vitalis Otieno said in a phone interview.
Simiyu now lives with her brother in Eldoret, a town in western Kenya.
Mwaura says most of the abduction cases he has dealt with involve relatives and other people close to the victims.
Marginalization of people with albinism increases the risk of attacks, he says.
“Nobody cares about people with albinism, and this is evidenced by the fact that even parents are involved in the trafficking,” Mwaura says.
Wambui Kairi, managing trustee of the Albinism Foundation of East Africa, agrees.
People with albinism face discrimination in their homes, she says. The attitude then spreads to the rest of the community. This makes them an easy target for traffickers.
“Some parents believe that the child was born as a result of a curse; some communities believe that the mother may have been unfaithful,” Kairi says. “Even now, there are people who believe that albinos are white people, not black, so only a white person could have fathered the child. We have many cases where children with albinism are not going to school, while their siblings are in school.”
Mwaura commends the Tanzanian government for banning witchcraft to stop albino killings. Jamenya’s death, however, shows that people with albinism are still not safe, he says.
“Because of the Tanzanian elections, I cannot rule out this period,” he says. “I have not allowed the children to go home and visit their families, because it is too dangerous at this time.”
The free movement of goods and people in the East African Community makes it difficult to stop human trafficking, he says.
The Albinism Foundation of East Africa recommends that immigration officers should be educated about trafficking of people with albinism across the region’s borders with the hope of stopping it, Kairi says.
“We should make them aware about what is happening so that when they see a person with albinism going from Kenya into Tanzania, for example, they can ask more questions than usual,” she says.
Kairi urges leaders to end discrimination against people with albinism, starting at home. Parents must be made to understand that albinism is a natural condition and not a curse, she says.
The Albinism Society of Kenya is writing a petition to the East African Community to adopt laws that will protect people with albinism within the region, Mwaura says.
“The EAC is currently drafting a disabilities law, and we hope our recommendations will form part of the legislation,” Mwaura says.
Mwaura has also sent a proposal to Parliament for the establishment of an albinism center.
“This would act as a rescue center for children with albinism who are at risk of abduction,” he says. “As much as I would like to, I cannot take in every child. It would also act as an information and treatment center for people with albinism.”
Lydia Matata translated some interviews from Kiswahili.