Too White in Black Africa

The Western press rarely mentions the murders that take place in Tanzania or Burundi from time to time, but the truth is albinos face heavy discrimination across almost the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Una ragazza albina partecipa alla Danza delle Canne a Ludzidzini, in Swaiziland. - Photo REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Apart from the typical medical problems connected with this condition, such as weak eyesight and skin that has no protection against ultraviolet rays, the African albino population also has to put up with widespread prejudice, rooted in ancient beliefs and magic traditions still very present in all corners of the continent. These beliefs and practices also fuel the market for human organs: every part of an albino’s body has a price tag and the number of victims in this social category is constantly rising.

In Geneva, on 13 June this year, the UN Commission for Human Rights approved resolution L25 against attacks and discrimination of people with albinism.

The clearly physical difference of African albinos, who are completely white compared to their mostly black neighbours, leads to social exclusion, which in turn radically alienates them from their environment.

Although these albinos are African through and through, even their families can end up disowning them and treating them like perfect strangers.

They are severely marginalised and all their efforts to achieve social and professional integration are often thwarted.

There are endless stories circulating about African albinos, many verging on the incredible. They are said to be immortal, have perfect night vision and supernatural powers. It is believed that going to bed with an Albino woman brings luck and wealth. In Southern Africa (Zimbabwe and South Africa), sexual intercourse with an Albino woman is supposed to cure AIDS, a rumour that has triggered an exponential increase in rape and HIV infections among this population.

Other myths claim that burying an albino’s hair in a field makes the soil more fertile, or a lock of their hair tied to a fishing rod guarantees a good catch. It is believed that all parts of an albino’s body can be used to produce magic potions, charms and ointments that make people impregnable to bullets and grant them the gift of ubiquity.

The traditions and superstitions about this population vary from one African country to another, but albinos are segregated and often suffer mutilations or murder throughout Africa.

Statistics on the murders of albinos in various African countries show a definite increase in these crimes every year and the figures are certainly underestimated, seeing as most of the murders are not reported, let alone punished.

In northern Cameroon, albino children are systematically killed at birth by families who do not accept them as their offspring. These masby sacres take place at night and society’s tacit complicity supports these practices, which continue since time immemorial.

Many social and cultural events call for ritual sacrifices: major football matches, general elections and other sacrificial rites.

During presidential elections some candidates sacrifice albinos to ensure their victory.

In Senegal, the former president Abdoulaye Wade openly accused the President of the Senate, Pape Diop, of having offered an albino up for sacrifice. And the first president in the Ivory Coast was known to have fed albinos to his crocodiles.

In this black market of horror, particularly developed in East Africa, every part of an albino’s body is worth something. Already penalised by nature, albinos are often forced to live in hiding, though they are still subject to humiliation on a daily basis.

Albinos are not only killed by frustrated bushmen and illiterate people in remote villages, or young criminals in cities. Politicians and intellectuals educated in the best universities of the world collaborate in the slaughter, though perfectly aware that albinism is a genetic disorder caused by a lack of melanin pigment.

The fact is that the prejudice and the massacres hark back to an animist world, a series of beliefs strongly rooted in every African, regardless of their level of education or social class. Animism is an ancestral superstition that is very widespread in Africa. According to this belief, both animate and inanimate objects have a soul: people, plants, minerals, the wind, the mountains, everything. This concept of the world assigns great importance to the connections between the world of the living and the world of the ancestors, establishing an ongoing dialogue between transcendental reality, God and all living creatures, with the ancestors acting as go-betweens.

All major social and cultural events of a people are interpreted through the distorting lens of these relationships. Positive events (abundant rains or harvests), are considered a blessing, while negative ones (droughts, volcanic eruptions, the birth of disabled children) are thought to be a negative reaction of the ancestors, caused by some dishonourable behaviour in the living. In both instances, different kinds of ritual sacrifices are required and the most vulnerable members of society, people seen as pariahs - like the albinos - are often the perfect scapegoats.

The growing poverty in most African nations also explains how animistic prejudices against albinos can quickly transform into the murderous insanity of those who fuel the market for human organs.

Efforts made by African states to combat this scourge have been ineffective, or non-existent. The oft-repeated excuse is that no country can provide a police officer to protect every inhabitant from getting killed.

In order to try to deal with this threat, Tanzania has set aside the island of Ukerewe exclusively for albinos, a closely monitored location, where albinos can be better protected against malicious attacks. These measures may appear questionable, but they do at least indicate the will of a government not to just to sit passively by while an entire category of its citizens is under threat.


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