Albinos, what has lack of an enzyme got to do with a tragedy!

Ignorance and superstition fuel the persecution of albinos.

By Dr Solomon Feyissa

In this day and age many would assume that albinism is a fairly understood phenomenon. However the experience of albinos in some parts of the world doesn’t support this assumption. Rather albinism is misunderstood especially in some parts of Africa resulting in misconception and superstition, contributing to stigma, discrimination and persecution.

Albinism is a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of tyrosinase (an enzyme which synthesizes melanin from the amino acid tyrosine). Albinism results from inheritance of a gene and is known to affect all vertebrates including humans. While an organism with complete absence of melanin is called an albino an organism with only a diminished amount of melanin is described as albinoid. Albinism affects people of all ethnic backgrounds; its frequency worldwide is estimated to be approximately one in 17,000. Prevalence of the different forms of albinism varies considerably by population, and is highest overall in people of sub-Saharan African descent. Albinism is associated with a number of vision defects, such as photophobia, nystagmus, and astigmatism. Some are legally blind. Lack of skin pigmentation makes for more susceptibility to sunburn and skin cancers.

It’s mind boggling to think that this simple truth about albinism didn’t reach some part of humanity in the 21st century. Given their predisposition to many diseases including skin cancers and visual disabilities, the public and society at large owes to albinos to provide them with extra protection and care they need. However in some part of the world they have to bear extra burden of stigma, discrimination and in some circumstances they are persecuted, mutilated and murdered. Persecution of people with albinism may occur for different reasons. One is based on the belief that certain body parts of albinistic people can transmit magical powers. Such superstition is present in some parts of the African Great Lakes region; it has been propagated and exploited by witch doctors and others who use such body parts as ingredients in rituals, magical or medicinal mixes, cocktails or drinks with the claim that their magic will bring prosperity to the user (“muti” or medicine murder). As a result, people with albinism have been persecuted, killed and dismembered, and graves of albinos dug up and desecrated. At the same time, people with albinism have also been ostracized (expelled from family or community) and even killed for exactly the opposite reason, because they are presumed to be cursed and bring bad luck. One such example is albino experience in Tanzania, the great lakes region and southeastern Africa. It is estimated that over 150,000 albinos live in Tanzania. A number of albinos have fled to the Dar es Salaam area as they feel safer in an urban setting. Tanzania is thought to have the largest population of albinos in Africa. Victims include children snatched or abducted from their parents. The killers and their accomplices use hair, arms, legs, skin, eyes, genitals, and blood in rituals or for witch medicinal or magical mixes or drinks. Fishermen incorporate albino hair into their nets in their hope to catch more fish from Lake Victoria or to find gold in the belly of the fish that they catch. Being an albino can be a death sentence in Tanzania. Since 2006, 71 people have been killed and another 29 have been attacked. 1 every 1,400 Tanzanians has it (the world average is 1 in 17,000). Most of the violence occur in the mining and fishing communities near Lake Victoria. By June 2008 killings had been reported in neighboring Kenya and possibly also the Democratic Republic of Congo. In October 2008 AFP reported on the further expansion of killings of albinos to the Ruyigi region of Burundi. Body parts of the victims are then smuggled to Tanzania where they are used for witch doctor rituals and potions. It looks like Albinos have become a commercial good. By 2010 cases had also been reported from Swaziland. Due to misinformation, ignorance and superstition, some locals believe albinos are ghosts that can’t die. Others think they were born into cursed families. And—most chillingly—witch doctors want to hack off their limbs to put in magic potions promising prosperity and healing. A complete albino “set”—ears, tongue, nose, genitals, all four limbs—can sell for several thousands. As a result, many of Tanzania’s 17,000 albinos have been hidden away by the government.Traders sell “cures” in the market of Mgusu. In Tanzania, where the annual per capita income in 2010 was $442, the limb of an albino may sell for up to $2,000. A miner will pour it in the ground where he wants to find minerals or a fisherman will pour it in his canoe. Since the police began protecting albinos, traders have complained that the price of the magic has become expensive. Albinism divides many families in Tanzania. Some albino children, are dropped at orphanages and never see their parents again. Others are raised solely by their mothers, abandoned by fathers who accuse their wives of having had affairs with white men. As a result, some albinos choose to marry those who understand them best: fellow albinos. Two parents with albinism, however, increases the probability that their children will be born with the condition. Despite the Tanzanian government’s efforts to educate the populace and end these killings, albinos are still seen as valuable commodities on the black market. The hunt for them has spread across the continent to Burundi, Kenya, and Swaziland. Many albino children face dim futures. Beyond primary school, little educational infrastructure exists for them. And in some communities, they’re considered mentally retarded and discouraged from attending school at all. Those who pursue an education often fall behind due to low vision, an affliction associated with albinism that makes reading difficult. Many grow up to be illiterate and work menial jobs. According to the Red Cross at least 10,000 albinos in East Africa have been displaced or have gone into hiding. Witch doctors have made tens of thousands of dollars from selling potions and other items made from their bones, hair, and skin. Rape is another horror faced by Tanzanian albinos. Girls, often in the remote northwest of the country, have been assaulted by men who believe that intercourse with an albino can cure AIDS. The exact number of victims is unknown, as social stigma prevents many girls from reporting rape. About 1.4 million Tanzanians have HIV.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. A number of steps were taken by the government of Tanzania to protect the albino population. The president ordered a crackdown on witchdoctors. In addition, an albino woman, Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, was named to become a member of the parliament, the first albino in such a position in the history of Tanzania. Police have also been advised to generate lists of albinos and provide special protection for them. To foil graverobbers, graves of the albinistic were to be sealed with concrete. However, by October 2008, killings had not abated, and while some suspects had been apprehended, no convictions had taken place. In January 2009, “Prime Minister Pinda had declared war on the albino hunters, and in an effort to stop the trade in albino body parts he had revoked the licenses of all the country’s witch doctors who use the body parts in their rituals. The first ever conviction for the killing of an albino in Tanzania occurred on 23 September 2009. The conviction came about following the murder and mutilation of a 14-year-old boy, Matatizo Dunia, who was attacked by three men in December 2008.The men carried the albino boy from his home late at night before chopping him into pieces. One of them was later found with the albino boy’s leg in his possession. The rest of the body parts were located concealed in a bush. The men confessed a desire to sell the body parts to a witch doctor. They were convicted and received death sentences. After events involving murders of albino humans by three Tanzanian men had been publicised by the BBC and others, the European Parliament strongly condemned the killing of albinos in Tanzania on 4 September 2008. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Resolution 1088, introduced by Rep Gerry Connolly (D, VA), by a vote of 418-1 on February 22, 2010. The resolution condemns the attacks and killings; categorizes them as human rights violations, and urges the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to vigorously prosecute such cases and to conduct educational campaigns to combat the superstitious beliefs that underlie the violent attacks.

1. Wikipedia; persecution of people with albinism.
2. BBC news, 27 July 2008. “Tanzania Albinos Targeted Again”.
3. National Geographic article “As Tanzania’s Albino Killings Continue, Unanswered Questions Raise Fears” October 2013.
4. Superstition sparks violence against Tanzanian albinos, Jacob Kushner, NBC news/Global post, November 6th 2013

About Tenayistilign

I am a physician trained at Jimma Institute of Health Sciences ( now Jimma University, in Jimma, Ethiopia) and Wayne State University ( Detroit, MI, USA). I teach and practice General Nephrology/Hypertension and Kidney Transplantation in the USA.
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1 Response to Albinos, what has lack of an enzyme got to do with a tragedy!

  1. Is says:

    Thank you Dr Solomon for bringing this up. The more informed we are, the more involved we could be. The horrors and atrocities are beyond comprehension. Ignorance and greed are indeed responsible….

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