Group photo of Association of People with albinism in MalawiThe Association of People with Albinism in Malawi plans to put up six candidates in next year’s elections .

The kidnap, murder and dismemberment of people with albinism, which has reached epidemic proportions in recent years in Tanzania and Malawi for the trade in body parts for muti (‘magic’), has prompted six people with the hereditary deficiency in melanin to stand in next year’s parliamentary elections.

The Association of People with Albinism in Malawi plans to put up six candidates in next year’s elections in a challenge to the stigma, superstition and attacks that have beset the 10,000-strong community since 2014. Overstone Kondowe, the association’s director, said: ‘We want to show the public that we are more than our skin.’

Many of their fellow Malawians cannot see beyond that lack of pigmentation. ‘Anyone born with albinism in this country is living in fear of attack, no matter how socially connected one is,’ Mbango Chipungu, a 32-year-old civil servant, told IRIN. With at least 148 attacks on people with albinism in Malawi and 22 murders over the past three years, Ikponwosa Ero, the United Nations’ rapporteur on the rights of people with albinism, warned after her visit to the country in 2016 that the atrocities against the minority made them ‘an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done’. Calling the situation an ‘emergency’, Ero said: ‘Persons with albinism are unable to trust even those who are supposed to care for and protect them…[they] are locked in a spiral of fear and poverty.’

The proportion of people with albinism is about one in 20,000 people worldwide, but in sub-Saharan Africa the incidence is higher, typically as common as one in 5,000, while in certain areas, such as in Tanzania and Malawi, it is as high as one in 1,000, according to a paper by Jennifer Kromberg of Witwatersrand University. Even if they were not hunted for their body parts, people with albinism face huge problems in African society. Shunned by many, fewer than one in 10 reach the age of 30 in Tanzania due to skin cancer and only half of all children with the condition finish primary school there, according to a charity for marginalised groups, Standing Voice. Elizabeth Machinjiri, director of Malawi’s Disability Rights Movement, is determined to change this, the Guardian reported. As one of those planning to stand for election as an MP, she said: ‘We need political commitment in fighting [the abductions and murders]. Disability issues are ignored in the country. We need to be represented. Other people may not understand the pain and hard things that we go through every day.’

There are signs that governments are waking up to the need to act against witchcraft. The threat to people with albinism has prompted the Malawi Law Commission to review the Witchcraft Act; Uganda closed down 23 radio stations in March for advertising and promoting witchcraft, and a Tanzanian island in Lake Victoria, Ukerewe, has become a refuge for more than 75 people with albinism, CNN reported. In May the president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, called for an ‘honest debate’ about introducing the death penalty to ‘stop such barbarous acts on vulnerable groups’. He was speaking after a Catholic priest was accused of being a trader in body parts for witchcraft when 12 people were arrested over the kidnapping and murder of McDonald Masambuka, 22, in May, the Times reported. His body was found in a shallow grave with his legs and some bones – believed to contain gold by some – had been removed. A medic and a police officer are also among the accused. The following month, the mother and stepfather of a missing boy, as well as two uncles and aunt, were charged with kidnapping and ‘intent to murder’ over the disappearance of James Kachingwe, 12, in July, the South African news site TimesLive reported.

Superstition has a deep hold on Malawi. Traditional healers, known as inyanga or sangoma, offer spells for almost every perceived physical, mental or sexual problem imaginable. The Traditional Healers Association has a price list for everything from spells for wealth, love, infertility and divorce to both hip reduction and enlargement. A Malawian lawyer told the BBC: ‘As a prosecutor, I’ve dealt with countless cases of murder whose root is witchcraft and counter-accusations of witchcraft.’ At least nine people were killed late last year as rumours of vampires sucking people’s blood sparked vigilante attacks in some of the poorest areas of the country, such as Mulanje and Phalombe, but even in Blantyre, the second city, two men were stoned to death, the Times reported. Another aspect of the catastrophic effect of supernatural beliefs in the country came two years ago when the custom of men known as afisi (‘hyenas’) ritually raping girls as young as 12 to ‘sexually cleanse’ them as part of the child’s transition to adulthood hit the headlines around the world (see ‘The Human Hyenas’, Commonwealth Update, September 2016).

Academics see the persistence of beliefs in witchcraft as the product of deeply embedded economic inequality. Speaking of the ‘vampire’ lynchings, Anthony Mtuta, an anthropologist at the Catholic University of Malawi, said: ‘It’s the rich versus the poor. The poor believe the rich are greedy and are sucking the blood of poor people.’ The desperation of near-absolute poverty drives the market in the body parts of people with albinism. The illicit trade is so lucrative that the body of a person with albinism can be worth $75,000, according to a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This is a fortune in Malawi, where 71% of the population live in poverty, according to the World Bank, and the country is on the bottom tier globally for income, with a gross national income below $1,045, the Malawi Times reported.

The brave stand of the six candidates is a big step in tackling the stigma attached to the condition, but even if some of them do get elected next year, people with albinism in the region will be looking fearfully over their shoulder while such economic desperation continues. And as long as, in the words of the UN’s Ero, ‘stealing a cow may attract a higher penalty’ than killing a person with albinism.

[Oren Gruenbaum is the Editor of Commonwealth Update]