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Magic and murder: albinism in Malawi

Albino girl
Albino girl (Alex Wynter/IFRC/Flickr)

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.


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