ELECTIONS ARE AN unusual time for most countries – television schedules are messed with, pub chats switch from football to politics and there can be a certain excitement around urban and rural areas alike.
While there can be fraught conversations and hard-fought battles of rhetoric in politically stable countries, the side-effects in developing countries can be more dangerous.
As the buildup gets underway for an election in Tanzania, a shocking element has emerged, leading to headlines across the world.
There has been a spate of vicious attacks and murders on people with albinism because of an old belief that their body parts bring good luck.
Last week, a six-year-old boy had his hand chopped off by gang members who attacked him in his own home.
What’s the connection to the election?
“The build-up to elections in Africa seems to be something that almost all people with albinism fear. Especially if you go into the rural regions. If their country is going to the polls or close to the border where they are, they fear for their lives,” says Don Sawatzky, Director of Operations at Under the Same Sun, an advocacy group for people with albinism working in Tanzania.
“There is the belief that their body parts will make a person instantly prosperous and wealthy,” he explains, adding that people interested in political positions can often still hold these superstitions.
A complete set of body parts from a person with albinism can sell for up to $150,000 (€140,000).
“The consumer of this product is wealthy,” continues Sawatzky. “The average cannot afford any of that. We have come to realise it is wealthy businessmen, they tend to be politicians. Because of the money that has gone into this trade, it has escalated.”
The practice is a very old one. People with albinism were sacrificed to volcanos in Cameroon; their heads buried with chiefs in Guinea; and up to eight buried alive in the grave of a chief to escort him to the afterlife in Tanzania.
That was to ensure success and power in heaven too.
During the tribal days, these ‘powers’ were only afforded to chiefs and elders. Consent was given rarely and only to a few.
Although the tribal way of life has broken down, the superstitions have remained, increasing the dangers for people with albinism.
“Some of the boundaries that contained the practice have been lost, but the belief is still there that these body parts can be valuable.”
It is estimated that there are about 34,000 people living with albinism in Tanzania, with many of the attacks reported in rural areas where people are particularly vulnerable.
“People can protect themselves easier if they get into school or university settings,” says Sawatzky. “It is less likely they will be singled out or attacked. In rural areas, the dilemma is that it is often family members, friends and neighbours who are complicit in the violence.”
In the last two attacks reported in the country, the boys’ mothers were also injured by the gangs and their machetes but their fathers were arrested for their part in the crime.
This week, 225 ‘unlicensed traditional healers’ or witchdoctors were detained by police across the continent as part of a special operation organised in response to the wave of attacks.
President Jakaya Kikwete has said the ongoing killings and maimings of people with albinism is an embarrassment for the nation, as well as a disgusting practice.
Despite the right words from Kikwete, who met with activists last week, at least 154 albinos have been murdered or attacked and lost a limb since the turn of the century. (There have only been five convictions as a result).
There are very few ways that people can protect themselves, save from staying indoors, and that doesn’t always help.
“The number one barrier to justice and security and integration is the lack of political will and lack of social will,” says Sawatzky.
Under the Same Sun, the Canadian charity founded by Peter Ash who has albinism himself, believes that it is the consumer that must be tracked and prosecuted, not just the witchdoctors as they are the ones keeping the business thriving.
“In order to see the attacks and trafficking end, the consumers must be identified, arrested and tried to the full extent of the law,” says Sawatzky. “There will always be another witchdoctor, trafficker and machete wielder as long as there is a demand.
The consumers are the ones that keep the demand alive with the large sums of money they pour into this macabre trade.
And the charity is still convinced that the support is not there from government to help people with albinism.
“To date, the Tanzanian government has done little more than talk and promise,” continues Sawatzky.
“There is a profound lack of political will on this issue. Other than displacing children with albinism from their families and communities into profoundly under resourced government schools, little else has been done.
“Protecting the children in government schools may have been a good short term precaution but now some of them have been held there for up to 7 years. It has now become a long term problem with no proposed solution by the government – they are now ‘internally displaced persons’. ”
Not only does UTSS want to change the superstitions that lead to attacks, they also want to reduce the stigma for people with albinism.
They are working to change attitudes in the country, “hitting the youth whose hearts aren’t as hard and more educated”.
“We’re trying to get the next generation to have more social and political will,” Sawatzky told TheJournal.ie. ”Peter and I are not under any naive belief or assumption that things will change in our lifetime.
“Each attack and killing really grinds in Tanzania and internationally. But it does take generations to die off. And there has to be laws to protect everybody, and they have to be implemented and there must be consequences for the crime.”
And it’s not just the attacks. Daily life can bring other problems because of health concerns and isolation.
“Pigmented Tanzanians treat them as inferior because of the colour of their skin,” explains Sawatzky. “Within a people group this is called colourism. Eventually the stigmatised group buys into the message around them and start to feel and act inferior.
“This is called a ‘survival skill’ (agreeing with a perpetrator can bring short term gains) but it certainly is not a good ‘living skill’ (where long term gains are more important for a prosperous life.”
There is also the daily battle against the sun, and the problems associated with low vision.
Sawatzky’s determination to limit these daily struggles is seen through his charity’s education, advocacy and medical work.
“People with albinism are beautiful, normal people like everyone else,” he concludes. “The only difference they have is low vision and the lack of pigmentation (colour & protection from the sun). Many are good natured and happy as long as they feel safe and loved. When that is missing, how could they not despair about their fate?”