The albino tribe butchered to feed a gruesome trade in 'magical' body parts

By Andrew Malone
Last updated at 10:02 AM on 25th September 2009


Mohamed at the Albino United football team

Mohamed trains with the Albino United football team who play daily after 4pm when the sun starts going down so they can be outdoors without worrying about their skin getting burnt.

Like a hunted animal run to ground, the little girl was cornered. Branded a 'ghost' on account of her striking white skin, Mariam Emmanuel had been chased through her African village, in a remote corner of Tanzania, by a bloodthirsty mob. Exhausted and terrified, the five-year-old slumped in the dust at the end of an alley. She whimpered and cowered while the adults surrounded her and sharpened their knives and machetes.

Then they set to work, butchering her and dividing up her remains between themselves. 'Mariam did not have the benefit of being unconscious before she died,' said one shocked investigator. 'She was killed, like an animal, by grown men who showed no compassion for another human being.'

Mariam's crime? She was an albino, one of more than 17,000 black Africans who suffer from a rare genetic condition that makes their skin white and their hair red or blond. And in a continent where millions believe in black magic or 'muti', their organs and blood are worth far more than their lives. Since the albino persecutions in Tanzania started in 2007, Mitindo Primary School offers education and hospitality to more than 95 albino children.

For decades, the albinos of Africa - known as the 'tribe of ghosts', 'zeros' or 'the invisibles' - have suffered appalling treatment at the hands of their own neighbours and are murdered for their body parts, which are believed to bring good fortune and cure all manner of ills.

In many African nations - but most commonly in Tanzania - albinos are butchered in the street. Their remains are used in the macabre human potions used by traditional healers to treat the sick. Believing it will bring them good luck and big catches, fishermen on the shores Lake Victoria weave albino hair into nets. Bones are ground down and buried in the earth by miners, who believe they will be transformed into diamonds. The genitals are made into treatments to bolster sexual potency.

Despite the increasingly modern appearance of many African towns and cities, where almost everybody carries a mobile phone and the young bid to wear the latest Western fashions, many educated people still believe in black magic and traditional medicine. And treatments made from albino body parts are believed to be particularly powerful, even by rich urban dwellers. Faraja, 8, and Pishon Mhewa, 10, with their baby brother Jeminus, 6 months. Their parents are both black skinned but are carriers of the recessive albinism gene.


Since the albino persecutions in Tanzania started  in 2007, Mitindo Primary School offers education and hospitality to more than 95 albino children.

Faraja, 8, and Pishon Mhewa, 10, with their baby brother Jeminus, 6 months. Their parents are both black skinned  but are carriers of the recessive albinism gene.
















In fact, the eyes, blood and organs of albinos can now fetch thousands of pounds - unimaginable sums in East Africa, where millions live on less than £2 a day and where this shocking trade is most common. Indeed, the colossal sums involved have spawned a new breed of freelance killers, often protected by the police, who harvest albino body parts for massive profits. Some governments are trying to stamp out this vile business.

This week, courts in Tanzania, where there have been 90 such killings in the past two years, handed out death sentences to a group of men who had slaughtered and dismembered an albino boy - the first such punishment for albino killers. The court in the north-west Shinyanga District, near Lake Victoria, ordered three men to hang for their part in the slaughter of Matatizo Dunia, a 14-year-old albino. He had been bundled out of his home in the dead of night - and cut into pieces.

One of the accused was caught with the boy's leg. The remainder of the corpse was found hidden in bushes. The guilty men admitted they planned to sell the 'white meat' to witch doctors. The gang is believed to have been responsible for 'hunting' albinos throughout the region, before trading their organs across this vast continent. And many are relieved that they now face the gallows.

'They killed an innocent and defenceless albino and they, too, deserve to die,' said Grace Wabanu, an albino university student who attended the court. 'I hope this judgment will serve as a deterrent to people who intend to kill albinos in the belief that their body parts will make them rich. For unknown reasons, Tanzania is believed to have Africa' s largest population of albinos - a genetic condition caused by a lack of skin pigmentation - and has an incidence seven times higher than elsewhere in the world.

Although those with the condition suffer higher than average levels of skin cancer and blindness, most albinos live full, happy lives - and can have healthy children of their own. But those born with white skin in parts of Africa often pay a terrible social price for their condition. Such is the stigma, albino children used to be killed at birth. In recent times, they have been spared by their parents - but they are usually kept indoors, hidden by their families to protect them from 'human poachers' and abuse on the streets.

Shunned from normal village life and barred from many jobs, these 'white ghosts' are also widely believed to provide a cure for Aids, the scourge of this continent. Indeed, many Africans believe that having sex with an albino will cure them of the disease. This has subsequently led to countless rape cases against albino women, leaving them HIV positive, too.

The white skin of albinos is also highly sought-after. There have been scores of cases of albinos in Tanzania and neighbouring Kenya being murdered and then skinned. Investigators have found albino skins from Tanzania being sold in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa.


Girls at Mitindo primary school, Misungwi, Mwanza

Ziuazahau Rikele is a 22 year old mother of 2 year old twins Azizi and Aziza. They moved to Burahati, 12km west of Dar El Salam, because of constant threats from locals in their isolated birthplace, the Coastal region of Kilwa

















No wonder, then, that the relatives of dead albinos are also careful about burial arrangements, which are often held in private at secret locations to prevent grave-robbers digging up and selling their loved ones' body parts. Indeed, Mariam's grandfather, Mabula, told this week how he had buried what was left of the little girl inside his mud hut. Lifting the bed where his granddaughter's remains were hidden beneath a mound of earth, he now sleeps above the grave to ensure robbers don't come back to collect Mariam's bones.

Amid an international outcry over this most recent spate of albino killings, the Tanzanian president, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, has banned all witch doctors from operating in his country - a favourite safari and beach holiday destination for British tourists - and has appointed the country's first albino MP, Shaymaa Kwegyir. The president has also ordered his officers to crack down on the trade. So far, more than 90 people have been arrested for their role in the grisly trade, including four corrupt police officers.

Fifteen other alleged albino murderers will also soon face trial. Pressure groups battling to end the killing of albinos were last night celebrating the death sentences handed down to the three men who slaughtered Matatizo and chopped up his body for 'medicine'. Indeed, Ernest Kimaya, the chairman of the Tanzania Albino Society, last night called for the guilty men to be put to death in public - as a warning to others intent of selling albino body parts. 'We hope that [the president] will authorise the death sentence the soonest,' he said. 'And that these executions are carried out publicly to show that the government is serious about this war against albino killers.'

Efforts to support albinos are also being made on a local level. A school has been turned into a sanctuary for albinos near the village where Mariam died. Her nine-year-old brother, also an albino, has been enrolled there. But the children at the sanctuary are still not entirely safe from predators. 'We have put up a fence and we are trying to step up security with night patrols,' says head teacher, John Loudmoya. 'But we still have to be on our guard.' Indeed, it is unlikely that the hangings of the albino killers will bring an end to this murderous trade - for one simple reason: there is too much money at stake. And while that remains the case, these extraordinary people will continue to suffer the most appalling violence at the hands of greedy and bloodthirsty mobs.

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