Tanzanian Albino Murders

Tanzanian Albino Murders

There are many fascinating mysteries of Tanzania; among them, its surprisingly high level of albinism.  Albinism afflicts roughly 1 in every 3,000 Tanzanians, a far higher rate than in the rest of the world.  (For example, in the United States roughly 1 in every 20,000 people is born with albinism.)

Unfortunately, Tanzania is also the heart of albino murders.  Folk medicine has it that albinos A) are not human, and B) possess magical powers.  This has led to the murder of approximately 25 albino Tanzanians a year.  Their limbs, their bones, their hair, and their organs are sold on the black market for a shockingly high price.

Albinism is a genetic disorder which prevents the formation of pigment cells.  Pigment is what colors our skin, our hair, and our eyes.  In addition to feeling ostracized and different because of their appearance, albinos suffer from skin cancer and diminished eyesight.  Life isn't easy for albinos anywhere, but it's worst in Tanzania.

The trade in human body parts is universally condemned, and yet it continues to happen.  Albinos in Tanzania feel threatened, paranoid, as well they should be.  Albino "hunters" will observe their targets, befriending them in order to gain their trust, before leading them off into the brush to be murdered and butchered.

Children are killed more often than young adults or adults.  Perhaps because they are easier to overpower, or more naturally trusting of adults.  

The New York Times broke the story of albino murders in 2008, reporting that 19 Tanzanians had been murdered in the past year.  The National Geographic channel is running a more recent special which reports that over 50 Tanzanians have been murdered.  

Unfortunately the rate of murders is increasing, and spreading to neighboring countries.  A four month old girl was killed in Kenya last week.  The week before in Swaziland, an 11 year old girl was "beheaded in broad daylight as over 20 other children watched."

This increase is driven by the economic reality of Tanzania as much as by ridiculous superstitions.  Life is extremely difficult in Tanzania, where the average person earns $1,200 per year - with many earning far less.  The albino superstitions are strongest among professional fishermen, who have to scrape together a living on approximately a dollar a day.  

By comparison, the Red Cross reports that " a complete set of albino body parts" can command the equivalent of up to $200,000 USD.  That's 166 times the GDP per capita, the equivalence in the United States of almost $8 million.

Weaving the hair of albinos into your fishing nets is said to increase your catch.  Smearing your nets with the blood of albinos is said to attract more fish.  Bones and organs act as all-purpose good luck charms.  In a life so desperate, perhaps it's not surprising that people would turn to rank superstition.

Many rural Tanzanians believe that albinos are the ghosts of "real people."  Or that they are something other than human; similar to a golem or a zombie.  They believe that albinos do not feel pain, and that they do not die when killed - they simply disappear.

A convenient belief for those who purchase human body parts for good luck, surely.

Photo credit: Flickr/IFRC