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A Bewitching Tale of Albinism in Tanzania

Far from being a throwback to tradition, contemporary beliefs around persons with albinism can be seen as being part of a modern disquiet at growing inequalities.
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People of the Albinism Community in Tanzania receive Martin Luther King Jr Drum Major for Justice Award in Dar es Salaam. Photograph by U.S. Embassy Dar Es Salaam.

Often referred to by derogatory terms such as Zeru Zeru (‘ghost like creature’) or mzungu (‘white man’), persons with albinism suffer discrimination and stigmatisation across East Africa. Their visible genetic differences often provoke strong reactions and they are attributed a range of ‘unnatural’ and pejorative associations with inadequacy and deviance. Even more tragically, however, persons with albinism (PWA) are also believed to be imbued with certain kinds of magic and their body parts are seen to be extremely valuable.

But far from being rooted in tradition, the fluidity and recentness of beliefs around PWA point to the ways in which contemporary contexts inform these understandings and practices.

Attacks on PWA

Attacks on PWA are believed to have first emerged in Tanzania in 2006, since when there have been almost 120 documented cases of violence. These incidents have typically involved murder and mutilations, with body parts sold for witchcraft ceremonies. Of the reported cases, only 31 survivors remain, deeply traumatised and disfigured. This number has decreased in the last two years, with five deaths and seven attempted killings reported, but many believe that the atrocities are underreported in a country where more than 150,000 PWA are thought to live.

The range of beliefs attributed to PWA are many and varied: that sexual contact with PWA can cure AIDS; that muti (‘medicines’) involving the use of body parts are protective and act as lucky charms; and that the conception of a child with albinism is the result of immorality and misdemeanour. It is also believed the body parts of PWA possess mystical powers that can bring success and wealth.

Such beliefs are prevalent across parts of Tanzania, particularly in the Lake Victoria Zone. But superstitions and myths surrounding PWA have also spread beyond East Africa, with reports of the body parts being trafficked across the Great Lakes region.

Market, wealth and magic

The fact that attacks only seem to have begun in the mid-2000s and that often incongruous beliefs surrounding PWA have spread even more recently points to the salience of new or ‘invented traditions’ regarding PWA, arising within contemporary contexts and disseminated across diverse markets.

Indeed, the recent attacks need to be understood within their particular settings and have as much to do with witchcraft beliefs as local understandings of modernity and globalisation. Far from being purely an enigmatic throwback to irrationality and tribalism, the attacks can be seen as part of a modern disquiet at growing inequalities related to production, consumption and accumulation.

The coincidence of extreme privilege and dire poverty is viewed as immoral by many and accumulation is often regarded as causally linked to unseen forces. For many these invisible forces include magic and they may use muti to try to redress this wealth distribution. In this way, notions of witchcraft are closely related to ideas of exchange and power, providing discourses through which public perceptions of inclusion and exclusion are framed.

Throughout Lake Victoria Zone, for example, where much of the demand and harvesting of organs has taken place, individuals working in the mining and fishing industries drive the purchase of muti. With over 3,000 registered witch doctors in the Mwanza region alone, witchcraft provides a system of explanation for people suffering from poverty and hardship. For many, managing the forces of divination and sorcery are an inevitable phase in improving their livelihoods. Indeed some see the boom in the fishing and mining industries in recent years as evidence of the efficacy of muti involving the body parts of PWA, and testament to the influence of witch doctors.

Yet whilst practitioners of witchcraft are adept at manipulating the ambivalence of capitalist development, it should also be noted that in the Lake Victoria Zone suspected witches and sorcerers have also been killed at the hands of local mobs. Whereas witch doctors are consulted for gain and prosperity, they are also widely blamed for poverty, disease and natural disasters. According to the Legal and Human Rights Centre Tanzania, since 2005 almost 3,000 suspected witches have been killed in witch-hunts, mostly in the Lake Victoria Zone.

A broader challenge

When attacks on PWA are solely viewed as ‘cultural’, implicitly or explicitly informed through European experience, many other factors are ignored. Attempts to outlaw witchcraft, often resulting in judicial cases against individuals making accusations against others or punishing accused witches, can be seen to align the state with the forces of immorality and malevolence. Additionally, notions of ill-gotten power can open the state to suspicion, doing little to erode the cultural currency of witchcraft. A more sensitive strategy is therefore clearly required.

Attacks on PWA appear to have decreased in frequency, but the situation is far from secure. Protecting PWA requires an acknowledgement of the dynamic role witchcraft plays in addressing popular understandings of capitalism and morality. The exchange of ideas concerning PWA need to be understood within their regional context, as a modern phenomenon related to the failed promises of local and national liberalised economies. Affirming albinism on its own terms requires a larger challenge which examines the mechanisms of modern wealth generation.

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