Defending albinos’ rights to life

Published: 8 June 2009 0:00 CET

Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu in Nairobi

Superstition has led to the killing of more than 60 albinos in Burundi and Tanzania. The Red Cross Red Crescent is backing government efforts to protect them, and defends their right to a life in dignity.

As the trial of 11 Burundians accused of involvement in the killing of albinos and the selling of their body parts continues in Ruyigi, the Red Cross Red Crescent has made the protection of the most vulnerable and promotion of respect for humanitarian values like non-discrimination and respect for diversity its highest priority.

More than 60 lives were lost in a recent spate of albino killings in Eastern Africa.

“The killings of albinos must stop and their dignity restored,” says Anseleme Katyunguruza, Secretary General of the Burundi Red Cross, which is providing humanitarian aid to 48 albino children and adults sheltered by authorities in the township of Ruyigi.

At least 12 albinos have been murdered in Burundi and 50 in Tanzania during the past few months. Although some 200 people were arrested last year on suspicion of murder in Tanzania, none have been convicted. In Burundi last November, however, two men were jailed for life for killing albinos.

Greed, superstition and murder

Katyunguruza talks about a “phenomenon of albino hunting” that started in August last year. The demand came from neighbouring Tanzania and is closely linked to the economic boom in the fishing and gold mining industries along the shores of the Lake Victoria.

This has turned into a deadly business, with killers reportedly being paid between 200 and 5,000 US dollars for their crime.“In search for profit, witch doctors revived an old superstition that the limbs and genitals of an albino can bring quicker and better results to one’s enterprise. We are condemning and fighting this horrible form of discrimination,” he adds.

Red Cross volunteers have been helping the bereaved families with the burials of the mutilated bodies of family members. Things are so serious that volunteers often have to pour concrete over the tombs to prevent albino corpses from being exhumed at night by people in search of the 'magical organs'.

Family betrayal

Many volunteers have taken the risk of sheltering in their own houses people with albinism, some of whom have even been threatened by members of their own families. Red Cross volunteers are driven by a firm commitment to respect human dignity and protect people from suffering and violence. The Red Cross strongly believes that all humans are equal and are not to be discriminated on the basis of criteria such as race, gender or living with albinism.

“We are two albinos in our family - my younger brother and I. One day our older brother came back from Tanzania with strangers. At nightfall, they hovered around our house as they watched us. Then they caught my brother and killed him,” one albino child, on the verge of tears, told a Burundi Red Cross volunteer.

His dead brother’s body parts were then sold off for 300,000 Burundian francs (about 250 US dollars). “We alerted the police, even though we were threatened. The authorities arrested [our older brother] but, for some reason, he was released shortly after. Now he is in hiding in Tanzania,” he added.

The areas worst affected are the communes of Bweru, Nyabitsinda, Kinyinya, Gisuru, Butaganzwa around the town of Ruyigi, not far from the Tanzanian border. The killings occur regularly in Tanzania as well. The body parts are at high demand among miners and fisherman around the Lake Victoria regions of Mwanza, Shinyanga, Kigoma and Mara.

Red Cross protection and assistance

Authorities in both countries have offered protection to dozens of albinos in shelters safeguarded constantly by the police. In Ruyigi, there is tight security at the shelters where the Red Cross is distributing food, digging latrines and providing other essential services.

“We have collected money and take turns to visit our (albino) fellow Burundians. We bring beer and share it with them since this is sign of acceptance and solidarity,” says one volunteer, adding that the Red Cross also encourages communities to help vulnerable albinos returning home by reconstructing houses and labouring their fields.

Activities encouraging respect for humanitarian principles and values have intensified in communities across the affected areas. Further assistance includes advocacy with local authorities in order to sensitize them to the plight of the albino. Schools have also been approached to ensure that albino children can continue their studies in the town of Ruyigi and the town’s hospital has been asked to allow free of charge medical care for albino people in need.

Across the border, the Kabanga public school for the disabled, near the town of Kigoma, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, provides refuge for some 50 Tanzanian albino children youngsters and single mothers.

Many have just escaped their villages with their lives and tell harrowing stories of killing and mutilation.

One small boy talks about his non-albino mother’s hand was severed by albino hunters armed with machetes after she tried to prevent them seizing him.

The school has now completely run out of space, but vulnerable albinos are still being brought in by the police from as far as 200 kilometres away.

The Tanzanian Red Cross has been able to provide sunblock cream as well as blankets, mosquito nets, soap and mattresses left over from its programme to assist Burundian and Congolese refugees in camps nearby, including personal contributions from volunteers.

Changing minds, saving lives

While eagerly waiting to hear about the outcome of the Ruyigi trial, some displaced people with albinism are already thinking of returning to their villages. When the time is right, Red Cross volunteers will accompany them every step of the way and ensure that additional discussions aimed at stemming discrimination are being organized.

A series of training sessions focusing on the reintegration of albinos into their communities has already taken place and volunteers have tested not only the acceptance but also the readiness of communities to protect those who decide to return.

“The results were satisfactory but communities remain divided over the issue,” says Evariste Nhimirimana of the Burundi Red Cross. “We need to continue our work … we cannot expect that superstitions will be easily eradicated.”

The Red Cross plans to use cultural gatherings to explain to the most suspicious that there is nothing supernatural about albinism; that in fact it is a health condition that cannot entirely be treated. Focusing on dropping bias, critical thinking and non-violent communication will be key to influence behavioural change in the community.

Nshimirimana’s concerns are echoed by his Tanzanian colleague Julius Kejo, who says: “We need to change minds in order to save lives.”


Case study: Claiming back dignity

In Tanzania’s Pwani village, one man with albinism is making history. Driven by a passion to help disabled people in his society, Hamis Ngomella took on special education training in a college and graduated as a teacher of children with special needs. He is among the few in his village to make it to college.

Hamis is the chairman of the albino association and represents the Red Cross in a regional disaster management committee.

The 40-year-old is one of the 170,000 people living with albinism in Tanzania. But Hamis refuses to live in fear. The second born in a family of three, he is the only albino, and feels lucky to be accepted and loved by his parents and siblings.

“When I was born, my mother tells me that the traditional midwife made a grimace when she saw me. No one welcomed the arrival of a strange baby. But my mother protected and kept me,” he says.

Hamis faced constant discrimination throughout his childhood: society didn’t accept him and schoolmates called him names like “Mzungu” which means “white man” in Swahili. Some people even suspected his mother of having slept with white people, as if this was a shame.

“Disability is simply our own invention - the hardship, things difficult to understand. Is a socio-political issue rather than a matter of health,” Hamis told his colleague Stella Marialle.

“We need to claim back our dignity,” he says.