Are white people related to albinism?
The curse of the white skin
In the end we will fear for the life of a four year old girl. We will feel the agony of people hunted like animals. And on a deserted country road, somewhere in the savannas of East Africa, the continent that we have been traveling for twenty years will finally appear deadly and cruel to us. But we can't know that yet when the woman without arms extends her shoulders in greeting. "They came at night," she whispers in the house of an aid organization in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, East Africa. "They smashed the door, four men with machetes."
Mariamu Staford is the daughter of black African parents, but her skin is white. Her light blonde hair is tied back in a plait, and her gray eyes have a bluish sheen. Mariamu has albinism. Due to a genetic disorder, their metabolism can barely produce melanin, a pigment that protects the skin from solar radiation and turns it dark. In Europe people with albinism are often hardly noticed, in Africa, on the other hand, stories have been entwined around the "white blacks" for centuries, which ascribe them supernatural powers. In Tanzania they are considered to be zeru-zeru, as immortal spirits. "That's why they're slaughtering us," Mariamu says quietly. "They believe that our body parts and organs make them rich and happy."
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When the men came with their machetes in October 2008 to fetch Mariamus arms, the 25-year-old maize farmer in northwest Tanzania was telling her little siblings a bedtime story. Then she hears a loud crash: a boulder hits the door of her mud hut, four hooded men storm in and blind Mariamu with flashlights. One pulls up her right arm, another hits below her shoulder with a machete.
"His blade is blunt, he hacks and hacks," says Mariamu breathlessly, as if it were happening again at this moment. "Blood, blood everywhere, a jerk, my arm gives way, only now do I feel the burning, only now do I scream in pain." Mariamu's siblings ran out of the hut, their parents locked in the next room. With full awareness, the young woman has to watch the attackers attack her second arm. Only when neighbors call outside do the men run away with their captured arm. The other one cannot be saved later in the hospital and has to be amputated.
In East Africa, people with albinism fear for their lives. Since the first documented murder of an albino in Tanzania in 2006, the old belief in the occult powers of these people has undergone a cruel mutation. Previously it was mainly their hair, fingernails and urine, but now witch doctors make their potions and good luck charms from the arms and legs, organs, bones and genitals of albinos.
In Kenya, Uganda and Burundi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and further south in Swaziland, Zimbabwe and South Africa, people with hereditary pigment disorder are faced with a wave of violence. The most dangerous country in the world for them is the former German colony of Tanzania: According to the United Nations, 151 albinos had been attacked, mutilated or killed here until the latest survey in August 2014. The true number should be significantly higher, because many attacks are not reported. The police seem powerless. There are hardly any cleared up cases. One of the few clues: before parliamentary and presidential elections, the number of attacks increases by leaps and bounds. In October there will be another election in Tanzania.
Stories of murders, mutilations and witchcraft serve exactly the cliché of a backward, barbaric continent that the West likes to portray of Africa. But what is really behind it? Why have the attacks on albinos been going on for a few years now? And who are the killers, who are the clients? We travel to Mwanza on the south shore of Lake Victoria, a good day's journey northwest of Dar es Salaam. With Josephat Torner, 32, an albino himself and a fighter for the rights of his minority for years, we drive through landscapes like from a holiday brochure: On the horizon, the sun rises red from the savannah. Lone acacias and baobabs cast long shadows. Women in brightly colored robes balance firewood on their heads. Not far from here is the Serengeti, where hundreds of thousands of tourists go on safari every year.
What albinos in this region have suffered in the past two years alone reads like the script of a horror film: On January 31, 2013, men armed with spears and machetes in a village south of Lake Victoria hacked off the left arm of an albino boy and killed him his 95-year-old grandfather who wants to protect him. Just a few days later, hooded people storm a house in the same area that contains a seven-month-old albino baby. Neighbors chase away the attackers at the last moment. At around the same time, an albino woman is overwhelmed by five men who cut off her left arm. A ten-year-old albino boy also loses an arm on the way to school.
In August 2014, a man is killed for trying in vain to save his albino woman from attackers; the killers cut off the left arm of the maize farmer Munghu Masaga, 35. Also in August, masked men grabbed the right arm of a 15-year-old girl. Two albino women just escaped an attack in October. In early December, strangers murder a young albino and chop off both of his legs. Shortly after Christmas 2014, a four-year-old albino girl was kidnapped. There is still no trace of him to this day.
The way to treat people with albinism in East Africa is often ambivalent. "Some believe we bring good luck," says our companion Josephat Torner in the car south of Lake Victoria. "The others are convinced that we are a curse for the family and the whole village." When Tormer was born, the midwife advised his mother to poison him. Neighbors accused her of having sex with you tokolosh having had an evil spirit. "Many believe that we are ghosts ourselves," says Torner, father of three children, none of whom have albinism. "They believe that we don't die, we gradually fade and in the end just dissolve."
The 32-year-old's forehead is furrowed, but his gray-blue eyes are mostly bright and he smiles a lot. Josephat Torner never seems like a victim to us. He works tirelessly on his vision that one day albinos in Tanzania will be accepted as normal people. He speaks to people on the street, explains the background to the hereditary disease in remote villages and gives radio interviews over the phone during lunch breaks. "Watch out!" Two men recently whispered to him in an alley. "Your arms are worth a fortune!" Then he invited them over for a beer, they talked about football, women and cars. "Then they knew that I was not a ghost, but one of them."
The majority of the albinos in Tanzania do not have such conciliatory experiences. Many men abandon their wives when they give birth to an albino baby. Children are abandoned, teased or beaten at school by their parents. In any case, disadvantaged because of frequent visual impairments, most albinos only have a lack of school education, they rarely find well-paid work and it is difficult for them to find a life partner.
“But the killing continues. Each of us can be next. "
One in 20,000 children worldwide is born with albinism. In Tanzania, the country with one of the highest albino rates in the world, it is said to be one in 1400. In order to pass the hereditary disease on, the parents do not have to be albinos themselves. It is sufficient if both have a genetic predisposition. The fact that albinism is so common in Tanzania is said to be due, among other things, to the fact that blood relatives of some ethnic groups have married each other for centuries.
In Shinyanga, a chessboard of dusty streets between shimmering grassland and flooded rice fields, Torner takes us to the regional office of the Tanzanian Albino Society. The small NGO tries to educate the population about albinism with brochures, lectures, radio and television programs. Torner shows us photos of victims. A survivor with deep cuts on the left shoulder - the body of a naked boy on a dirty cloth, his legs ending at the knees, the lower legs beside them - the smeared face of a dead baby, pressed into the ground like that of a naked doll; instead of the arms, black holes gape from the shoulders.
Torner's breathing is difficult. He doesn't say a word for a long time. In 2012 he was attacked by masked men himself and forced into a car; at the last second the police intervened. The man in the red cap, who simply refuses to die quietly and without a name, spoke to the Tanzanian President and asked the United Nations Human Rights Committee for help in Washington. "But the killing continues," says Torner and puts the photos aside. "Each of us can be next."
Less than five minutes from the office, more than 200 albinos seek protection from the killers behind four-meter-high walls reinforced with barbed wire; three quarters of them are children. In the former school, a very pretty girl with light skin and a snub nose reaches for our hands. His name has been scrawled on the wide brim of his slouch hat: PENDO. With her thumb, Pendo rubs our fingers almost tenderly. As soon as we want to let go, the 15-year-old squeezes a little harder. There is a blue scarf over her right shoulder and her arm is missing underneath.
We don't dare to ask Pendo what happened. We don't want to lead them back to their traumatic experience. Later Torner will tell us how last August several men broke into her family's house, threw the girl to the floor, pressed his arm on a wooden bench and cut him off with a machete. Since then, Pendo has hardly uttered a word. Her head is shaking nervously, her thumb rubbing incessantly over our hands. Nobody knows where her parents are. There is no psychologist in the camp. Pendo has to deal with her trauma on her own.
Thousands of albinos are currently hiding in eleven such camps in Tanzania. There are more every day. The police collect them, cram them into former schools and barracks and build high walls around them. If you don't want to, you will still be taken. Safety first, says the government. Guards with clubs are supposed to protect them from human hunters. In the evenings, the number is counted, and at night police officers patrol with rapid-fire rifles.
In the Shinyanga camp there is a lack of everything: teachers and supervisors, classrooms, teaching materials, medical care; even food and drinking water are scarce. The bedrooms are reminiscent of stables: two or three children share tattered mattresses in two-story wooden beds or on the floor. Two outhouse toilets with no doors give off an acrid smell. Barred windows, flies, rats. The camp may only be left with special permission. "They live like prisoners," says Josephat Torner. "The government locks up the victims instead of punishing the perpetrators."
Most of the murders and mutilations occur in the catchment area of Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world shared by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It is rumored that fishermen are behind the attacks. Torner leads us to a fishing village near Mwanza, the most important town on the south bank of the lake. In 1890 the German colonial authorities established an outpost here. Five years earlier, German soldiers had conquered the mainland of what is now Tanzania. The German East Africa colony also included parts of Burundi and Rwanda.
In Mwanza, the Germans systematically built the city and port from 1892 and raised large cotton plantations on which they had slaves toil. Magic played a tragic role even then. In the Maji Maji uprising in 1905, local tribes rose up against the slave drivers who struck with whips made of hippo leather. Maji - in Kiswahili: water - describes the miraculous water prepared by traditional healers, which was supposed to protect the rebels against German machine guns. They faced the hail of bullets as if they were invulnerable. The uprising claimed 100,000 lives. During the First World War, British and Belgian troops conquered the area and put an end to the German colonial dreams.
On our search for the background to the albino murders, we find a spindly fisherman with cracked palms on the lakeshore near Mwanza, not far from the former German fort. Fifteen years ago, Saidi Mhando brought home up to 300 kilos of Nile perch in one night. "Today I often come back without a single fish," says Mhando as he stows a net in the bow of his small wooden boat. "Some nights the lake is dead." Millions of people on Lake Victoria make their living from fishing, but it has been in a deep crisis for years. The Nile perch - mostly called Victoria perch as food fish in Germany - was released in the lake in the 1960s to make the fishery more profitable. In fact, the predatory fish, which weighed up to 200 kilograms, multiplied rapidly, but displaced inferior native species. The ecological and economic disaster at Lake Victoria was made 2004 by the Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin’s Nightmare world famous. European governments promised support and aid organizations took action. Greenpeace advised against eating wild Victoria bass. But little has improved for the people at the lake.
On the contrary: Today the Victoria perch is massively overfished. More than a dozen fish factories on the lake are fueling the uncontrolled catch for export to Europe. German retail chains are also among the buyers. Traditional small-scale fishing has been destroyed, and Lake Victoria is a dying body of water. "You Europeans fill your bellies with our fish," says Saidi M’hando. "We're left with heads and bones." To survive, the fisherman relies on the mganga. The Swahili word is used for a school doctor as well as for a witch doctor who tries to solve his customers' problems with magic. A mganga can heal, it is believed, but if a customer so wishes, he can use his secret knowledge to make his enemies sick or even kill them. In the traditional African social order, the mganga is highly respected and feared at the same time.
"The Mganga gives us things that we weave into the nets," Mhando tells us. What kind of things? He throws a quick look over his shoulder and says quietly: "Hair that attracts fish because it glitters - albino hair." We ask him why he doesn't weave aluminum foil into the net. It glitters too. "The Mganga knows what he's doing," says M’hando and pushes his boat into the water.
In the car, Josephat Torner explains to us that it is not the small fishermen who mutilated albinos. "The Mganga uses our arms and legs for the rich," says Torner, looking out over Lake Victoria. "He sells the leftovers to the fishermen." The witch doctor mixes small, dried pieces of body parts in potions or sews them into black cloth bags that are worn around the neck, hips or wrists. "People like Saidi M’hando pounce on it like a school of small fish," says Torner. "The worse they are, the greater the demand." The losers of globalization as waste recyclers of occult cannibalism.
But who are the big fish? And who the killer? For days we try to speak to one of the albino killers in prison. Vain. The few convicted are hermetically sealed by the government. In Shinyanga, a man who is still at large and is said to have mutilated a six-year-old albino agrees to meet us. But at the appointed time he does not show up; after that he is as if swallowed by the earth.
Torner even telephones while eating, mobilizes the nationwide network of the Tanzanian Albino Society, spins contacts in the underworld, until after more than a week on the outskirts of Shinyanga we finally enter a half-dilapidated brick house. A thin man with a pointed face and watchful eyes first closes the door of his room and the shutters before he speaks to us.
"To get some money, I went to the Mganga with friends," says E., 29, while streaks of light fall on his angular cheekbones through the cracks in the shutters. He didn't graduate from school and had been out of work for years. "The mganga told us if we were going to get rich we should bring him an albino's hand." Her victim was Esther Charles. The nine-year-old albino girl was a neighbor of E. in Kahama, a region in the Shinyanga district. Five of them kept watch outside.John, her leader, had climbed through the window into Esther's room alone, first knocked her unconscious and then cut off her hand with the machete. What did E. feel when they cruelly mutilated the girl? Isn't an albino human? "The Mganga asked for it," he says, and shrugs his shoulders. "We had to do it."
While fleeing in the dark, John lost sight of his accomplices. E. says he never saw the hand himself. Because even before John could deliver them to the Mganga the following day, he was arrested. Maybe E. really doesn't know, but according to a secret police report that was leaked to us later, John did not cut off little Esther's hand, but rather both legs and head. The police found her body parts in a sack behind John's house.
"Our citizens must finally understand that the only way to get rich is hard work."
In prison, John revealed the names of his accomplices. E. was arrested and spent two years behind bars. In 2011 he was released. In the absence of evidence. Did he reveal the witch doctor's name in prison? E. looks at us horrified. "The mganga would kill my parents and my siblings, then my children and in the end me." E. would have preferred to spend the rest of his life in prison than say a word about the identity of the mganga.
Why is he talking to us? Because he has bad dreams, he says. He has lived anonymously on the outskirts of Shinyanga since his release from prison. "I can't talk to anyone about it." We can see that he wants to tell us something else. Outside in the courtyard, playing children are laughing. "John helped us because we were friends," says E. finally. "But otherwise he worked for others."
Before the attack on Esther, John had mutilated albinos several times. He gives us details about the attacks, dates, names of the victims. We'll check them out later. What E. says is true. "His employers paid him two million shillings for one arm." Around a thousand euros. "Twice as much for a head."
Who did John work for? E. shakes his legs nervously, his gaze wanders through the twilight under the roof of the hut, then he says: "For the bosses, for politicians, big beasts in the government - the Mganga helps them win the elections with albino parts. “E. doesn't want to give names. Politicians who are instigated by witch doctors to have people's arms and legs chopped off? In order to win political offices with it? Vicky Ntetema thinks this is plausible. "Election periods are a time of terror for people with albinism in Tanzania," says the director of the Canadian NGO "Under the Same Sun" in Tanzania; the organization campaigns for the rights of albinos worldwide. "Mgangas have admitted to us that they are helping politicians win the elections by mixing potions with albino body parts."
The increase in attacks on albinos in the run-up to elections speaks for her theory: as early as 2010, before the elections in Tanzania and Burundi, there was a series of mutilations with several deaths. At the beginning of 2013 - two months before the elections in neighboring Kenya - the attacks skyrocketed again. And since the primary campaign in Tanzania started last summer, the atrocities have increased again. Tanzania's Interior Minister Mathias Chikawe defends himself against such allegations. "We are against anyone who lies to people that magical good luck charms could make them rich," he said at a recent press conference; the government is doing everything possible to end the crimes against albinos. But of a total of 72 documented albino murders in Tanzania, according to the United Nations, the culprits have only been punished in five cases.
A task force recently set up by the Tanzanian government is now to investigate suspects. It has been the fifth since 2006. Findings of their predecessors are not known. Even the work ban on traditional healers, which has been in place since January, seems to be paying lip service to the government. A similar ban from 2009 was lifted in September 2010 - exactly thirty days before the last elections. However, a few weeks ago the Tanzanian police announced that they had arrested more than 220 healers, clairvoyants and magicians during raids.
“Our citizens must finally understand,” says Interior Minister Mathias Chikawe, rather helplessly, “that the only way to get rich is hard work.” The political elite shows them the opposite. Tanzania is one of the most corrupt countries in East Africa. Without a bribe there is no place in school, no running water, no medical care. The incumbent President Jakaya Kikwete is also accused of corruption. According to a report by Wikileaks, he is said to have accepted a million dollars for his party from an Arab businessman in Tanzania.
The path to the people behind the albino murders leads through the Mgangas. Only they know their clients. But wherever we inquire about a witch doctor - in the suburbs of Mwanza and Shinyanga, on Lake Victoria, in the villages in the hinterland - we encounter resistance. Some are simply afraid of them, others say that the police are hunting the Mgangas, which is why they are particularly careful. In the mining region of Maganzo, a diamond prospector, who regularly goes to see a witch doctor himself, assures us: "It is completely impossible for outsiders to meet a Mganga."
After almost two weeks, countless phone calls, secret meetings with middlemen and several unsuccessful attempts, thanks to Josephat Tormer's connections, we finally succeed in meeting a mganga who is supposed to work with body parts of albinos. It is shortly before midnight when we push open the door of a mud-covered hut at the end of a dusty path in Shinyanga. Inside, a barefoot man with sinewy limbs is sitting on a low stool. In the light of a lamp, his head casts a grim shadow on the clay wall.
We introduce ourselves as two of the many Europeans who own diamond mines in neighboring Congo. During a business trip through Tanzania, we heard that the Mganga could use its magic to find diamonds. In order not to cast suspicion on the real reason for our visit, a local middleman with black skin accompanies us instead of Tormer.
The Mganga looks at us piercingly; then he nods, puts a cloth on the floor and pours glittering stones, white cowrie shells and coins from the German colonial era on it. He makes us spit on a piece of bone shaped like a phalanx, mixes it on the cloth with the softly clicking objects and looks at them for a while. "Your mine is dead," the Mganga finally says in a deep voice. "That's why it doesn't drop anything." But he could make us a medicine that would bring the mine to life. "All your problems will be solved!"
Almost an hour passes in the ceremony before we dare to ask what this medicine is made of. Our middleman lowers his voice as he translates. The mganga's gaze darkens; his teeth grind softly. We put two 10,000 Schilling bills next to our finger bones like normal customers - just under ten euros. The Mganga shoves the money under the bone and says: "You deposit an albino arm in your mine, it works like a magnet, it pulls the diamonds out of the rock."
How much would it cost? "Ten million shillings." More than $ 5,000. The amount roughly corresponds to research by the Canadian NGO Under the Same Sun. Estimates by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, based in Geneva, are in a similar range. An albino's skin is said to cost up to $ 9,500, a set of organs up to $ 100,000. The price for the complete corpse of an albino child is $ 200,000, according to the Tanzanian Albino Society. A lot of money in one of the poorest countries in the world.
We later learn from Josephat Torner: For a magic potion or a talisman, a piece of the albino body part is usually sufficient; the remainder is cut up and sawed by the mganga into peanut-sized units to turn them into lucky charms, for example for fishermen or prospectors. Thousands of such pieces are extracted from one arm - and each is worth up to a thousand euros.
Sixty percent of Tanzanians - Christians and Muslims alike - believe that sacrifices for spirits or ancestors bring good luck.
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