Using a stump of a hand pressed against his cheek, an African boy with skin as white as milk skillfully sketches a portrait of a man. Once the work is finished, the boy looks up, eyes shining with joyful pride, at the man he’s just drawn.
This talented young artist is Emmanuel Festo, an albino student at Lake View School in Mwanza, Tanzania, featured in a Reel Truth documentary in which this touching scene was captured. Festo was brutally attacked and dismembered by albino hunters at the age of seven, while his mother was preparing dinner. The men who attacked him cut off his arm, fingers, and teeth with machetes. After the attack, Festo was offered treatment in the US, where Philadelphia surgeons were able to attach one of his toes to his remaining hand to form a grip.
June 13, 2019, marks the world’s 5th International Albinism Awareness Day. Unfortunately, the persecution, murder, and dismemberment of people living with albinism– a disorder marked by the absence of pigment in the skin, eyes, and hair– is still widespread, most concerningly in sub-Saharan Africa, where some believe that albino body parts have magical, healing powers.
While albinism is relatively rare in the West, it is genetically more common in sub-Saharan Africa, most likely as a result of consanguinity, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. In Europe and North America, approximately 1 in 20,000 people has albinism, while in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is closer to 1 in 5,000-15,000, according to the World Health Organization. In Tanzania– where the most attacks on albinos have been reported– the prevalence of people with albinism is believed to be a staggering 1 in 1,500.
Attacks on people with albinism are particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa due to superstitious myths surrounding their nature. Albinos in these regions are often shunned by their communities, and viewed as non-human spirits or ghosts. Some believe that minerals within albino body parts bring wealth and luck. Many albinos, including infants and children, are killed or dismembered for these parts.
“In some communities, erroneous beliefs and myths, heavily influenced by superstition, put the security and lives of persons with albinism at constant risk,” states the United Nations website. “These beliefs and myths are centuries old and are present in cultural attitudes and practices around the world.”
Albino body parts such as teeth, bones, genitals, and thumbs have been used in rituals by traditional healers, who say they promote health, riches and success. Albino body parts are dried up, ground, and packaged for illegal trade. These parts are then consumed as “medicine” or carried around for good luck. According to a 2013 UN Report, some believe albino body parts are more potent if the victims scream intensely during amputation.
Over the past decade, nearly 200 killings and 500 attacks on albinos have been reported in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, the number is likely higher since many of these attacks and killings are not documented. According to Amnesty International, traffickers sell albino body parts to witch doctors for steep sums, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that albino hunters can sell a whole human corpse for up to $75,000, while a single arm or leg can be sold for approximately $2,000.
Albino graves are dug up and desecrated to procure body parts. Those with albinism are also raped by those who believe that unprotected sex with them can cure viruses such as HIV and AIDS, consequently infecting the victims.
Between the threat of such killings, dismemberments, and rapes, people with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa often live in constant terror. Despite the gravity of these abuses, governments across southern and eastern Africa have done little to effectively prevent these practices.
The lack of health services to manage albinism is also a big problem, as albinos are very susceptible to skin cancer and impaired vision due to sun exposure. 98 percent of albinos in sub-Saharan Africa die before the age of 40, often due to causes which are easily preventable. For reference, the average life expectancy for the general population in sub-Saharan Africa is 61 years.
“Many of those living with the condition cannot afford badly needed sunscreen and protective clothing,” reports Africa Renewal, a magazine published by the UN. “A bottle of sunscreen that lasts for two weeks sells for about $15 in Tanzania, a country where most people live on less than $1.50 a day.”
In Tanzania, where reported attacks on albinos are the highest, the government has attempted to work with NGOs to conduct investigations, pass new laws against witch doctors, and make convictions in attacks against albinos.
A 2012 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that approximately 93 percent of Tanzanians surveyed believe in witchcraft, and 60 percent depend on witch doctors for treating supposedly witchcraft-related ailments. Witch doctors are largely responsible for perpetuating the belief that albino body parts bring riches.
In 2015, after an increase in attacks on albinos, the Tanzanian government began trying to regulate healers, requiring them to have a government license. While traditional healers working with herbal medicines can continue to practice, witch doctors who use human body parts have been banned. Despite this, attacks on albinos have persisted in alarming numbers. The problem continues to be a lack of enforcement and a lack of education to dispel myths.
Improvements in education and law enforcement may take considerable time. Scholar Bright Nkrumah believes that African albinos should be able to seek asylum in the West, given the failure of African states to protect these populations from violent persecution.
Nkrumah evokes the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Although African governments remain the primary custodians of Africans with albinism, the burden of violence often visited on this group constitutes “persecution” under the UDHR and therefore the international community has a role to play in safeguarding this group.”
Various states– among them, the US, France, and Tunisia– have already granted asylum to some African albinos who fled the imminent threats they faced. However, most albinistic Africans lack the means to flee their countries and declare refugee status as currently required under international law, according to Nkrumah.
If they can’t reach a third country, they cannot be considered asylum seekers under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, making it extremely difficult for them to seek assistance from the international community.
Nkrumah suggests that the UN Refugee Agency adopt a document which would unify state practices around Protected Entry Procedures (PEP) and encourage many states to adopt it. Under PEP, persecuted peoples without means of escaping to another country can complete refugee and asylum applications from diplomatic establishments within their own countries.
In addition to providing a means of safety to persecuted populations who lack the resources to flee, widespread adoption of PEP would also alleviate illegal immigration into the host nations, says Nkrumah. While some countries, such as Spain, have operated PEP in various embassies, it has not yet gained widespread global acceptance.