SEATTLE, Washington — In Africa, living with albinism can be a death sentence. Adults, teenagers but especially children and infants, fall victim to brutal attacks. The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that genetically, Africans are more prone to albinism. According to a 2019 research study, albinism’s prevalence in Africa is between one in 5,000 to one in 15,000. These numbers highlight the high incidence of this genetic diagnosis within the African continent. Unfortunately, Africa’s high incidence of albinism exists among countries where it is most dangerous for them to live. Poverty-stricken, medically untreated and even hunted, those with albinism in Africa live in constant fear.
What is Albinism?
Albinism often references oculocutaneous albinism (OCA), a group of inherited genetic conditions that cause little to no production of melanin pigment. Melanin regulates the color of skin, hair and eyes. Types of albinism vary, but the most common medical impairments include vision and dermatological risks. Exposure to the sun can be highly damaging to both the skin and eyes. This is due to the diagnosed individual having significantly less pigmentation. Access to sunscreen, protective clothing and sunglasses are crucial needs for anyone living with albinism.
Albinism in Africa
Albinism in Africa is viewed differently across the continent’s countries. For some communities in Tanzania, an Albino’s body parts are believed to have minerals that bring wealth, luck and even sexual conquest. Some existing, but rare, healers conduct ritualistic practice using teeth, bones, genitals and other albino’s body parts. Moreover, some groups believe albino body parts hold more power proportional to the victim’s youth and how intense they scream, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Alternatively, across sub-Saharan Africa, it is believed one can be cured of HIV/AIDS if one rapes and performs a ritualistic defilement on a young girl with albinism. In Zimbabwe, those living with albinism may be referred to as sope, meaning spirit or vengeful ghost. In this region, the lighter pigmentation of skin leads to the belief that evil spirits inhabit those living with albinism. Other stereotypes surrounding albinism in Africa include witchery, punishment for a sinful family and that a white man or the devil impregnated an albino’s mother. Albinism not only severely endangers the person, but sometimes the mother, and in extreme cases, their entire family falls victim to hate crimes.
Stigmas Surrounding Albinism and Affecting Human Rights
Unfortunately, albinism in Africa has devastating risks well beyond those in westernized countries. The rampant stigma does not stop at community levels. Police and medical practitioners, such as midwives, let cultural stereotypes affect their practice. Local authorities are more likely to ignore albino hate crimes and kidnappings. Medical workers believing the stigmas associated with albinism leave those living with the condition untreated. Inadequate childbirth assistance, lack of medical treatment and discriminatory practitioners contribute to the higher death rate among those diagnosed with albinism in Africa.
Although albinism in Africa is gaining attention globally, brutal events still take place every day. In Tanzania, Emmanuel Festo, an aspiring artist living with albinism, is but one of many victims. At age seven, Emmanuel was taken and brutally attacked while his mother was inside making dinner. These albino hunters dismembered the seven-year-old with machetes—the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Emmanuel’s arm would sell for approximately $2,000, or 4,634,000 Tanzanian Shillings on the black market. Albino hunters can go as far as selling an entire human corpse for up to $75,000.
Albinism Affecting Poverty and Families
People diagnosed with albinism in Africa find themselves with less protection than their local counterparts. The rate of poverty among the albino population is high. Living in mostly rural areas and experiencing a lack of finances and law enforcement leaves adults, children and infants with albinism exposed. The sociological perspectives of albinism in Africa are commonly harmful. Depending on individual families’ beliefs, children with albinism can be abandoned or sold. If fortunate to be spared from physical harm, they are often left poverty-stricken and malnourished.
The hopeful news is that not all families follow this practice. Families often desperately cling on to their children despite albinism stigmas to protect them. In Malawi, Africa, Edna Cedric lost one of her sons to albino hunters, known as body hunters in her village. Despite living in severe poverty, she prepared herself and managed, with her neighbors, to fight off the hunters when they returned for her son’s twin brother.
Safety and Advocational Efforts for the Albino Community
Amnesty International, a human rights organization, reported that Edna Cedric’s son, and 19 other Malawians with albinism, were killed between 2014 and 2017. Amnesty International emphasizes that the total number of killings is much higher but often goes unreported by the local police. However, this kind of research has inspired groups across the globe, such as the United Nations’ refugee organization, to address the brutalism. In recent years, relocation efforts have expanded. International organizations transport those living with albinism in Africa who experience brutal attacks to foreign hospitals, such as in Canada and the United Kingdom, at no cost. Medical practitioners treat albino hunter victims abroad to avoid further discrimination by local medical facilities. Additional care services such as transplants, physical therapy and surgery to repair skin damage are now accessible to victims.
Furthermore, international efforts are moving to provide better treatment opportunities for those living with albinism in Africa. Because most of Africa’s albino population falls below the poverty line, the majority cannot afford medical treatment. International outreach teams continue to provide crucial supplies in Africa at no cost. Simple items such as sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and eyeglasses prevent painful medical complications in the future. Training programs in African clinics educate practitioners about albinism’s genetic condition to encourage the decrease of stigmas and malpractices.
Highly encouraging is the ongoing collaboration between African countries. In recent years, East African governments have met together to create the Regional Action Plan on Albinism in Africa. The action plan for 2017 to 2021 includes holding accountable governments, medical facilities, law enforcement, communities and families to protect people living with albinism in Africa. By 2021, East African governments hope their destigmatizing campaign encourages the wide acceptance of albinos by faith organizations, public schools and communities. In Tanzania, affirmative action has gone as far as to accept a Tanzanian woman living with albinism as a member of the nation’s parliament.
As national and global attention on albino mistreatment in Africa grows, communities across the continent will improve their societal perspectives on the genetic disorder, and authorities can bring violent groups to justice. Efforts from global organizations and African governments are crucial in leading societal and safety changes. Still, as vicious attacks and dismemberings occur day to day, increasing global awareness of these injustices is necessary to encourage protective growth for albinism in Africa.
–Grace Elise Van Valkenburg