Albinism is a genetic condition caused by the absence of melanin pigmentation in the skin. Because of this condition, people with albinism (sometimes called PWA) are subject to discrimination and brutal attacks for their pale skin, pink eyes and blonde hair.
There have been a number of myths regarding people with albinism in Africa; myths such as people with albinism never die because they are ghosts, and a belief that albinism is a curse from the gods or from dead ancestors and that contact with them will bring bad luck, sickness or even death.
People with albinism have also been persecuted, killed and dismembered, and their graves dug up in search for their body parts. The persecutions of people with albinism take place mostly in Sub-Saharan African communities where they are often referred to by derogatory names such as ‘inkawu’, the Nguni term for white baboon, ‘isishawa’ a Zulu translation of a person who is cursed as well as ‘zeruzeru’ which means ghost-like.
The Swahili term ‘zeruzeru’ is also commonly used in Tanzania, a country with the highest number of documented PWA deaths in Africa.
According to a report by Under the Same Sun (UTSS), a Canada- and Tanzania-based albinism activist organisation, the following are samples of traditional and long-standing cultural practices that have victimized people with albinism.
The Maasai tribe (Kenya and Tanzania)
The Maasai traditionally committed the new-born child with albinism to a trial by ordeal. As soon as the child with albinism was born the child was placed on the floor of the exit gate of a cattle barn. When it was time to release the cattle for grazing, the barn gate was opened and the hungry cattle hurriedly exited the gate, trampling on the baby with albinism. If the baby survived the trampling, it was thereby proven to be the child of the father and allowed to survive. Otherwise, the death of the child proved the opposite.
Sukuma Tribe (Tanzania)
The Sukuma tribe is one of the largest tribes in Tanzania. Sukuma traditionally killed their babies with albinism as soon as they were born. Once killed, the baby’s remains were used for witchcraft rituals.
Over time, upon the advice of witchdoctors, the child with albinism was spared from the infanticide and allowed to grow to adulthood so that they may be buried alive with the Sukuma Chief when he died.
The intent of preserving PWA in this manner was to use them as supernatural escorts of the Chief into the afterlife. As chiefs die only occasionally, the need to bury PWA was also an occasional one. As a result, the numbers of PWA among the Sukuma increased.
To date, the Sukuma still have a relatively higher number of PWA when compared to other tribes in the region.
Chagga tribe (Tanzania)
The Chagga traditionally left a newborn PWA in the bushes or forests to die. This practice was upheld on the belief that the child was a being but not a human being.
Digo tribe (Tanzania)
The Digo traditionally killed their babies born with albinism. They performed this infanticide using a trial by ordeal. The ordeal consisted of dropping a newly born child with albinism into a lake.
Once dropped into the lake, the parents of the child and their supporters waited to see if the child would emerge on the right side of the lake in which case it is believed that the baby would emerge alive. If the child emerged on the left side of the lake, it was believed that it would emerge dead. UTSS has no evidence that any baby with albinism survived this ordeal.
In Ghana, in a 2009 interview with a chief, Nana Agyare Osei Tutu III, of Bukruwa in the eastern region, the Chief discussed the centuries-old tradition of his town that involved the sacrificing of PWA to the gods of the town for ritual purposes and to bring good omen to its indigents.
Nana Agyare further commented that his town could not guarantee the safety of PWA given the deep entrenchment of the tradition of killing them. He described the practice as centuries old. The chief also said that although he wished that the custom is abolished, he is in a quandary as to how to do so.
The 2012 UTSS report to the UN suggests that while these are generally described as events from the past, there is the possibility that they still occur especially in rural villages where local customs and age-old practices are still alive; records are not kept, and infrastructure is weak. It is possible that any tribe in East Africa that has a low or non-existent PWA population, such as the Maasai, may still be practising traditional infanticide.
Apart from such cultural beliefs, these brutal acts towards individuals with albinism are fuelled by witchdoctors who are at the centre of the trade in human body parts, as they promise remedies to human needs especially in the area of financial wealth and political gains. With these body parts ranging in thousands of dollars, locals are generally unable to afford such prices, so wealthy elites are reported to also being the key players in the trade.
The term “person with albinism” (PWA) is preferred to the term “albino” because the former puts the person before the condition rather than equate him to it.