People with albinism face prejudice and death in Tanzania. A new campaign is now being launched to end hostility towards the tiny community of about 30,000. BBC Africa’s Salim Kikeke met some of them.
Mtobi Namigambo, a fisherman by trade, sits calmly on a stool outside his mud house in Ukerewe island.
Once a sanctuary for albinos, this is no longer the case. His four-year-old son, May Mosi, who has albinism, sits on his lap. Showing off his newly learnt skills, May counts from one to 10, confidently.
Mr Namigambo occasionally throws a glance at his wife, Sabina, who is seated on a mat at his feet preparing the family’s evening meal. Their other two children are playing nearby. They also have a newborn baby, sleeping inside the house.
When May was three months old, he escaped an attempted kidnap.
“I had gone to the lake to fish. They were all alone in the house when the attackers struck,” Mr Namigambo tells me.
“My wife jumped out of the window and ran to safety with May, leaving the two children behind, who were not harmed at all.”
‘Hacked to death’
“The attackers were after May,” Mrs Namigambo chips in, “My husband was away on a fishing trip and they knew about it. That’s why they came for my boys.
“After jumping out of the window, they still came after me and I was screaming for help. They only backed off when I woke up the neighbours.”
Albino people, who lack pigment in their skin and appear pale, are killed because potions made from their body parts are believed to bring good luck and wealth.
More than 70 albinos have been killed over the last three years in Tanzania, while there have been only 10 convictions for murder, campaigners say.
In the most recent case, in May, a woman was hacked to death.
“We’re being killed like animals. Please pray for us,” one albino woman sings, at an event called to promote the rights of albinos.
‘Targeted for hair’
May is among 70 people with albinism who live in the remote island of Ukerewe, which is three hours away from Mwanza, the second largest city in Tanzania.
“We would urge the government to do more in educating the community here,” Mr Namigambo tells me.
“The government once held seminars about albinism. It made a lot of difference, but not any more,” he adds.
Campaign group Under the Same Sun, which works closely with the local albino community, says the island is not as safe as people would like to believe.
The chairman of the regional Tanzania Albinism Society, Alfred Kapole, an Ukerewe native, was forced to flee to Mwanza city.
“He was among the first person with albinism whose case reached the courts after a village leader attempted to kill him for his hair,” says Vicky Ntetema, head of Under the Same Sun.
“Last year his home was attacked. Luckily he was in Mwanza. There was another attempt on his life this year.”
Ms Ntetema says this is a common experience for albino people.
“A family of a young girl with albinism had to flee their home twice, in 2011 and 2012, when unidentified men attacked them, saying that they were sent by the father of the home, a fisherman, to get the girls’ hair.
“When people commit crimes they go by canoes to neighbouring islands where they cannot be found,” she adds.
The Tanzania government has launched a campaign to raise funds to help persuade communities to abandon old beliefs and stop targeting albino people.
However, the campaign focuses on urban areas, not in rural areas where albinos face the biggest threat.
“We don’t have the capability, or means to reach communities at village level. We mainly rely on radio or television, but we can’t reach the grassroots because of costs,” says Ramadhani Khalfan, chairman of the Ukerewe Albino Society.
In Sengerema, some 60 km (34 miles) from Mwanza, a monument has been erected at a roundabout in the middle of the town.
It is a life-size metal statue, depicting a pigmented father holding his child with albinism on his shoulders while a pigmented mother puts a wide-brimmed hat on the child’s head to protect him from the sun.
There are also 139 names of victims who were killed, attacked, or whose bodies were stolen from graves.
A representative of the Sengerema Albino Society, Mashaka Benedict, told the BBC that even educated people still believe that albino body parts can bring wealth.
“If that’s the case, why are we not rich?” he asks.
Mr Benedict alleges that prominent people are involved in the “killing business” and this is why very few people have been arrested, charged, convicted or jailed.
“How can a poor man offer $10,000 [£6,300] for a body part? It’s the businessmen and politicians who are involved.”
The police say they try their best to investigate attacks.
“These cases are complicated because most incidents happen in very remote areas where there is no electricity, for example, and that makes identifying perpetrators at night very hard,” says Mwanza police commander Valentino Mlowola.
“We investigate each and every case and claim, but as you can see, it’s not simple.”
Despite the failure to solve cases, many people living with albinism are hopeful that public attitudes will change and children like May will be able to have a life, free of persecution and violence.
‘We want your legs’
The last adult albino to be murdered – just a few weeks ago – was Nyerere Rutahiro.
Nyerere Rutahiro’s body was laid to rest in a cement-sealed grave
He was eating dinner outside in his modest rural compound, when a gang of four strangers burst in, and threatened to arrest him. As his wife Susannah looked on helplessly, the men began to hack at Nyerere’s arms and legs with machetes.
“We want your legs,” they shouted, “We want your legs,” his wife recalls, still deeply traumatised by what she saw.
Nyerere was clearly being targeted for being albino – but in every other respect he was an accepted part of his community. A father of two in his 50s, farming cassava – just like everybody else.
His body was laid to rest in a cement-sealed grave to protect against grave robbers who often steal body parts of the dead to give to witchdoctors. A builder had been hired to do the job.
Looking on as the funeral came to a close, is Nyerere’s sister Winifrida. She too is albino.
Terrified, she pulls her six year-old-son closer to her. Though he is black (the gene that causes albinism is a recessive gene), he too is vulnerable.
It is all too clear what is going through Winifrida’s mind. Will they come for her next?
Squinting her pale eyes against the midday sun, Winifrida whispers in a barely audible voice: “Please, ask the government to take me away from here, I dare not come out of the house since my brother was killed.”
This is the work of organised gangs, according to Tanzanian police in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam.
When Amina was born my husband and the older two children moved away. They were so ashamed and thought Amina would bring us bad luck… but I am not leaving her
Ashura, mother of nine-year-old albino Amina
Have Your Say
Witchdoctors, middlemen and the clients who pay for albino body parts are among the 173 people in custody so far for these macabre killings. None has been prosecuted.
The BBC sought to investigate how sorcerers’ tales of albinos are being channelled into gruesome crimes.
An intermediary posing as a “client” with mining and fishing interests seeking to get rich quick, visited a prominent witchdoctor on our behalf at dusk. They were told that albino body parts could be obtained without difficulty, for a price.
The police are now investigating these claims. Since then, a seven-month-old albino baby was killed nearby.
The sad reality is that albinos who can afford it, are now flocking to urban centres where they feel a little more safe.
And nowhere is it considered more safe than at the Ocean Cancer Institute in Dar es Salaam – where so many of them come to get treatment for the skin and eye conditions that albinos often fall prey to.
Away from the wards, under the shade of a mango tree, a black woman sits with her albino daughter. Ashura and Amina, her angelic looking nine-year-old.
They may seem an odd couple at first, but the firm eyes of the mother reveals a woman deeply protective of her child. She is a woman who looks older than her years.
Ashura and Amina now live on their own, ostracised by the rest of their family.
“When Amina was born my husband and the older two children moved away,” recounts Ashura.
“They were so ashamed and thought Amina would bring us bad luck… but I am not leaving her… she’s my daughter.”
Every parent nurturing an albino child has good reason to be frightened in today’s Tanzania. The stories of youngsters being snatched from their parents’ arms or attacked on the way to school are – quite frankly – horrific.