(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Magic and murder: albinism in Malawi

    Mbango Chipungu has a good job and lives in an upmarket suburb of the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, but he can't remember the last time he went out at night.


    Certainly not since early 2015, and the start of a wave of "ritual killings" of people born with albinism: an inherited genetic condition in which the body fails to produce enough pigment, or melanin.


    Since January last year, there have been 17 recorded murders of people with albinism in Malawi, and 66 cases of abductions and other related crimes.


    "Anyone born with albinism in this country is living in fear of attack, no matter how socially connected one is," said Chipungu, a 32-year-old graduate and civil servant.


    Albinism affects roughly one in 17,000 people globally, but in sub-Saharan Africa the incidence is higher, typically as common as one in 5,000. In Tanzania, it is one in 1,400.


    People with the genetic trait often experience taunting and discrimination. They can be accused of being "ghosts" or “witches” or derided in other ways for somehow being less than human.


    There is also a belief in the magical properties of their bodies. Their "difference" supposedly boosts the efficacy of potions or amulets made from their hair, eyes, skin, limbs and organs. People born with albinism are hunted, killed and dismembered, or their graves dug up by criminal syndicates in search of their bones.


    The belief – common in so many religions – is that literal or symbolic cannibalism allows communication with spirits and deities, and is used by those wishing for power and money.


    These "occult economies" – the use of magical means for imagined material ends – mirror the mysteries of the 21st century market, where money flows seemingly abundantly and effortlessly. In the almost literal worshipping of wealth, people turn to familiar arcane forces for a helping hand.


    Transnational trade


    This ultimate commodification of the human body is big business. According to the police in Dedza, central Malawi, two "albino hunters", arrested for the kidnapping and murder of 17-year-old Davis Machinjiri, had smuggled the body across the border to Angonia in Mozambique, where they had been promised $66,000 by "witch doctors".


    Jeremiah Banda, a Malawian traditional doctor, believes the wave of killings has spread from Tanzania. "The use of albino body parts in magical medicine is common among East African traditional doctors, mostly those from Tanzania, where there is a belief that albinos possess special powers and their parts can bring good luck when used in magic concoctions," he told IRIN.


    Malawian police also seem eager to externalise the problem. Following the arrest of 10 men in connection with the abduction and killing of a 25-year-old woman with albinism in Lilongwe, police spokesman Kondwani Kandiado said "our current information indicates that there is a Tanzanian link in the recent wave of albino abductions and killings in the country".


    Body parts are bagged, transported and sold in "underground markets", he told IRIN.


    According to a 2009 report by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an intact body of someone with albinism in Tanzania is worth around $75,000 – suggestive of a trade only affordable for the already rich and powerful, whose wealth is probably not based on productive labour.


    Signs of success


    The Tanzanian government's response was initially slow in having an impact, but it has included a ban on "witch doctors" and a crackdown on unlicensed traditional healers, with more than 200 arrested in the first three months of 2015. It has also, in some cases, placed children with albinism in protected homes.


    Malawi is now the centre of international attention on the issue. Amnesty International said in a statement earlier this year that "it is deeply worrying that there’s poor security for people with albinism in Malawi despite an increasing number of attacks against them”.


    Speaking at the end of a week-long, fact-finding mission last month, the UN's independent expert on human rights and albinism, Ikponwasa Ero, said the situation in Malawi was an "emergency" and people with albinism were threatened with systematic extinction.


    "The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces, which push people to do things for profit," she said in an interview with Al Jazeera.


    Pointing to the government-led success in Kenya and the role civil society has played in Tanzania to combat the problem, she added: "[If] we can focus resources and energy and elevate the issue for just a couple of years... the difference will be massive."


    Malawian President Peter Mutharika has ordered the police to "shoot on sight" anybody caught in the act of abducting or killing people for ritual purposes.


    A more practical move is for the courts to hand out tougher sentences to people found guilty of persecuting people with albinism. In a landmark case last month, the Association for People with Albinism in Malawi applauded a 17-year jail sentence for a man found guilty of the murder of his niece.


    Last week, the two men accused of the murder of Machinjiri, whose body was found in Mozambique, were both sentenced to 25 years in prison.


    Magic and murder: albinism in Malawi
  • Refugees pay the price of Mozambique power struggle

    The losers in a power struggle between the Mozambican government and opposition RENAMO party are the refugees that have streamed across the border into Malawi, fleeing insecurity and allegations of human rights violations by the army.

    More than 11,500 civilians have left Mozambique since military operations began in October 2015 to disarm RENAMO militants, predominantly in the coal-rich central province of Tete, which borders southern Malawi.

    According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as many as 250 refugees were crossing each day in early March. Most find shelter in the small Malawian village of Kapise, five kilometres across the border. Facilities in the overcrowded, makeshift camp are inadequate, with just 14 latrines and limited boreholes to supply water.

    The UNHCR had announced plans to open an older camp at Luwani, which hosted Mozambican refugees during the 1977-1992 civil war and was finally closed in 2007. But both the Malawian and the Mozambican governments appear to have opposed that move.

    Officials in Mozambique have sought to play down the escalating conflict with RENAMO, blaming the mass displacement as partly a response to drought.

    An inquiry into alleged human rights violations by the Mozambican army absolved the security forces of any wrongdoing, but refugees in Kapise said they had witnessed abuses by military personnel looking to weed out RENAMO sympathisers.

    Mumderanji Mesenjala told IRIN that he fled after seeing soldiers beat up his neighbour and set his house ablaze. “I believed that I would die with my family that day, so I instantly made a decision to flee the country,” he said.

    Read more

    Fleeing fighting in Mozambique to uncertain future in Malawi

    Gorongosa residents reminded of Mozambique’s bad times

    Portuguese migrants seek opportunities in Mozambique

    Another refugee, Verniz Jose Joao, told IRIN that since controversial polls in October 2014, there had been “an air of tension and conflict in many areas where RENAMO [unofficially] won more seats in the elections”.

    Old wounds re-opened

    Human Rights Watch has documented far worse crimes in a confrontation that pits old civil war rivals against each other and threatens to derail a country not long ago seen as one of Africa’s great economic success stories.

    “There is a low-intensity conflict under way,” Mozambique expert Paula Roque of Oxford University told IRIN. “There are deaths and human rights abuses in Tete and elsewhere, and there is potential for escalation.”

    The violence has taken the form of ambushes on the EN1 and EN7 highways in central Mozambique, which are increasing in frequency. A week of RENAMO attacks against civilian and military targets in Sofala, Manica and Zambezia resulted in three deaths with 23 people wounded, police reported on 15 March.

    New grievances

    RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama, whose rebellion more than three decades ago against the then-Marxist ruling FRELIMO party was backed by Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, claims the 2014 elections were stolen. He has demanded a constitutional amendment to allow him to appoint governors in six central and northern provinces he says should be under RENAMO control, and has threatened to seize them militarily by the end of March.

    According to the election results, FRELIMO retained control of all of the country’s 10 provincial assemblies. The polls were marred by irregularities, but according to veteran Mozambique watcher Joseph Hanlon, they would not have been sufficient to change the overall election verdict, which saw FRELIMO maintain its 40-year grip on power.

    Unable to win power through the ballot box, as has been the case in all five previous elections, Dhlakama has pushed hard for devolution as the next best option.

    New recruits

    Current military tensions date back to October 2013, when RENAMO renounced the 1992 peace agreement, triggering clashes with the army. A ceasefire in 2014 stopped short of a planned demobilisation and military integration programme for RENAMO fighters, with both sides blaming each other for the failure.

    RENAMO militants are not just the aged combatants of the last bush war. “We all thought that RENAMO may be just a few hundred men”, but it seems able to attract some younger recruits, said Roque. At least one refugee in Kapise spoke of fleeing to escape forced recruitment.

    “RENAMO has a lot of support in central Mozambique. I was told by a researcher who was there for three months that it’s almost hegemonic,” said Roque. “People buy into the rhetoric accusing FRELIMO of corruption and the marginalisation of RENAMO regions.”

    Peace moves

    Wider violence in Mozambique is not inevitable. A local mediation team has been urging Dhlakama not to make good on his military threats in the provinces, and a former Italian diplomat, Mario Raffaelli, who helped negotiate the 1992 peace accord, has returned to the country to help find a political solution.

    While President Filipe Nyusi has called for direct talks with Dhlakama, the former rebel warlord has sought to broaden the negotiations and bring international players, including the Catholic Church, the European Union, and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, to the table.

    Nyusi, the winner of the 2014 election, is viewed as more moderate than his predecessor, Armando Guebuza. But there are hardline elements within FRELIMO who are less accommodating. Dhlakama last year survived at least one apparent attack on his convoy – the police said they were returning fire.

    With the international community beginning to wake up to the seriousness of the situation in Mozambique, Roque portrayed recent events as part of a tried-and-tested strategy by Dhlakama to ratchet up the military pressure to win concessions at the negotiating table.

    “Dhlakama has a wonderful capacity to say things and then backtrack. He’s always found a way to justify how he’s shifted the goal posts,” she said.

    In the meantime, refugees continue to pour across the border, abandoning their homes and livelihoods in Mozambique to live in extremely difficult conditions in Malawi, where host communities are already feeling the strain.

    “We don’t have problems living alongside our Mozambican brothers,” one Malawian in Kapise, Isaac Zimpita, told IRIN. “However, we believe the camp is too small and it is quite proper the refugees are moved to Luwani, where they were hosted during the civil war.”


    Refugees pay the price of Mozambique power struggle
  • Malawi’s hunger season

    It’s mid-morning on a dusty road to Lisungwi market in Neno, southern Malawi, and Bertha Cham’bwinja is sitting under the shade of an acacia tree resting from the scorching sun, a 20-kg bag of maize by her side.

    “It has been extremely hot this January,” she says. The rains should have begun around December, but this is an El Niño year and the skies have been alarmingly clear.

    Cham’bwinja had travelled six kilometers from her house to the depot of the state-run Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC), which sells subsidised maize. This is her return journey and she has four kilometers still to go before she reaches home.

    The journey is not her major concern. Her worry is how to feed her three children, and the coming harvest. Without decent rains she knows it will be another bad year. “The crops in our gardens are not promising and the rains are not pouring,” she told IRIN.

    As a result of last season’s failed crop across much of Malawi, Cham’bwinja is among 431,000 people benefitting from a cash-to-buy food initiative run by the World Food Programme. Overall, 2.86 million Malawians are "food insecure" (they lack access to sufficient food to lead healthy and active lives), the result of a double-blow of floods and drought last year.

    Balancing needs

    Cham’bwinja is grateful for WFP’s cash, but says the 20kg of maize grain she has just bought from ADMARC won’t last her family a week. The stipend provided by WFP is roughly $20 a month and does include the cost of a 50kg sack of maize.

    But balancing food needs for a household takes some juggling. “We are going through hard times and can’t afford anything else but maize flour porridge for breakfast. So if we use this flour for lunch and dinner, it’s just too little,” said Cham’bwinja.

    Vegetables at least should be part of her family’s diet. Processed maize flour fills the stomach, but it’s extremely low in the nutrients that especially growing children need.

    The government has bought 55,000 metric tonnes of maize from neighbouring Zambia and in addition has released stocks from its emergency reserve. But logistical problems and a booming black market are causing shortages of the staple cereal.


    When IRIN visited the southern districts of Balaka, Neno, Chikhwawa and Mulanje, and the central district of Ntcheu, a 50kg bag of maize grain was being sold by ADMARC for roughly $7. But on the parallel market, it was going for between $13 and $19 a bag – a crippling amount for poor families.

    The huge price differential has resulted in chaotic scenes at ADMARC depots. It has prompted a furious President Peter Mutharika to warn that any ADMARC employee found selling subsidised maize out the backdoor to profiteering private dealers will face the full weight of the law.

    "This is outrageous,” he said in a recent national address. “It is a moral recklessness which I cannot tolerate. I strongly warn anyone against such atrocities. This has to stop immediately.”

    But it hasn’t calmed the situation. Continued shortages at ADMARC depots are forcing people to queue from as early as 4am for maize flour.

    In some southern and central districts, Malawians are turning to “emergency foods” like wild tubers, which need to be carefully prepared to remove the toxins they contain.

    Malawi was the southern Africa country worst-affected by last year’s poor harvest, with output down by 24 percent on the five-year average. If this season’s production is as bad as feared, then the food crisis will last into 2017.

    The price of maize is already 175 percent higher in some markets in the south than the three-year average for this time of the year. WFP and its partners have reached some 2.4 million people with food and cash assistance in 24 of Malawi’s 28 districts, and are planning to extend relief operations an additional month, through April.

    Wake up

    Two dry seasons in a row have prompted a wake-up call over the threat of climate change, the vulnerability of Malawi’s rain-fed drought sensitive maize crop, and the rural poverty that undermines resilience.

    Minister of Agriculture Allan Chiyembekeza has called on farmers to diversify, warning that the government can only do so much. “When there is a calamity, everyone blames government, yet it can only help where it can,” he said.

    James Okoth of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization urges the government and farmers to use the latest irrigation technologies to modernise production.

    “We also need to encourage subsistence farmers to plant crops that resist the waves of climate change such as cassava and potatoes,” he told IRIN.

    But these are hardly new strategies. The importance of irrigation has long been recognised, but a lack of training and the inability of local communities to mobilise finances to maintain irrigation systems has seen both community and state-run projects collapse into disrepair.

    Although drought-resistant sorghum and millet are traditional crops, maize – introduced by the British a century ago – has grown to dominate agricultural production, and is now central to the country’s food culture. Maize accounts for 70 percent of most people’s calorific intake.

    This is Malawi’s worst food crisis in over a decade. A government farm input programme that subsidises seeds and fertiliser has led to bumper harvests over the years, but hasn’t solved the basic problems facing the poorest producers.

    Malawi’s landholdings are generally small and densely cultivated, causing overuse and degradation of marginally productive agricultural land, according to WFP.

    The government launched a $146 million appeal last year for its Food Insecurity Response Plan to cope with the current crisis. It remains less than half funded.


    Malawi’s hunger season

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