Albinism, the condition that causes complete lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes, is a relatively rare condition in the West where it affects one in 20,000 people. But in the rural areas of Tanzania, largely as the result of inbreeding, the condition affects one in 1,400, experts say.
For those Tanzanians who are affected, life can be hard and often dangerous, because albinos in the country, and in other parts of Africa, are both stigmatized and sometimes hunted for their body parts, which are believed to bring good luck.
The Daily Mail reports local superstition holds that albino body parts are believed, by some, to be capable of bringing a person wealth or luck when combined with a witch doctor’s potions. Such beliefs have led to a black market for albino bodies and body parts, with some willing to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for a limb or even as much as $75,000 for a whole body. The market itself has led to an increase in violent attacks on the country’s albinos, with perpetrators hacking off limbs with machetes - an act that leaves the victim either mutilated or dead.
Since people started collecting records in the country, there have been 74 killings and 59 mutilations. Sixteen graves have also been robbed. Some say the actual numbers are much higher because many incidents go unreported.
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One of the most recent attacks, reported by News.com.au, came in December 2014 when 4-year-old Pendo Emmanuelle Nundi was kidnapped from her home. Local authorities have made several arrests, including the girl’s father and two uncles, but she has not yet been found.
Josephat Torner, who himself is albino, campaigns for albino rights in the country. He says albinos often don’t know who to trust. He points to a 2013 incident in which a 38-year-old woman was attacked by her husband and four men while she slept. They cut off her arm.
“Now we can see the parents who are involved in planning the attacks. What kind of war are we fighting if parents and family do this? Who can we trust?” Torner said in a recent interview.
It is not a new problem, but many say it is getting worse.
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“The question is, why? Why now? And who is behind the killings?” Torner said.
One of the hardest things to explain is where the money to buy the body parts is coming from. Tanzania is among the poorest countries in the world.
Some speculate that the upcoming October 2015 presidential elections in the country could be the catalyst for the new spate of attacks, with politicians and campaigners turning to witchcraft and superstition to bolster their chances of victory.
Torner thinks that might be getting pretty close to the truth.
“The big fishes are behind the issue,” he said. “It has been really a big discussion. If I say big fish, or big people, it is those who have enough resources, enough money. People sell the body parts for high prices. So it is not really small fish behind it.
“It could be politicians. It could be those people,” Torner added.