Africans With Albinism Hunted: Limbs Sold on Tanzania's Black Market

Murders spurred by toxic mix of ignorance, prejudice and traditional beliefs.

October 2, 2009, 5:55 PM

Oct. 2, 2009— -- Mariamu Stanford, a soft-spoken, 28-year-old single mother from rural Tanzania, has earned a grim distinction: She's one of only two people with albinism -- a group that has faced discrimination in East Africa -- to survive a brutal attack by those wanting to sell the limbs of albinos on the black market.

In her first interview with American journalists, Stanford greeted ABC News visitors with a shy smile, wearing a short-sleeve blouse that revealed the scars of her ordeal.

Last October, men armed with machetes entered her hut and began cutting at her arms in a gruesome attempt to amputate them, Stanford told ABC News.

"In the middle of the night, a group of men stormed in and said, 'We are going to cut your arm off, and if you scream we'll cut the other arm off,'" she said. "And then they started to chop my right arm off. And because I was screaming, they also started to do the same with the other."

After her attackers fled, it took six full hours for Stanford to get medical treatment. Five months pregnant at the time, she lost both arms and her unborn child.

A devout Christian and member of her church choir, Stanford was caught up in a grisly trade inspired by a renegade set of witch doctors; they claim potions made of the blood, skin or bones of an albino can make people wealthy and bring good luck.

We spoke just outside the two-room mud-floor building, where she lives with her parents, four young siblings and her son, a toddler. Her artificial limbs, donated by a well-wisher, lay discarded because they were painful and cumbersome.

Despite Tanzania's reputation as a tourist mecca known for safaris and visits to Mount Kilimanjaro, people with albinism are being hunted down like animals. Since 2007, 54 Tanzanian albinos, including children, have been murdered by gangs of men who hack off arms, legs or genitals. Observers said even more cases of attacks have gone unreported.

Tanzania is arguably the worst place in the world to be born with albinism -- a hereditary genetic condition caused by two recessive genes resulting in little or no pigment production in the hair, skin or eyes. The country has one of the largest populations of albinos in the world -- an estimated 170,000 -- and they are being targeted for their white skin.

Click here to find out how to help Tanzanians with albinism

Poverty, Prejudice, Superstition Spur Murders

Officials say ignorance, prejudice, traditional beliefs and poverty are behind the epidemic of albino killings. In a country where per capita income is $442 a year, the limb of a person with albinism can fetch almost anywhere from $500 to $2,000.

It doesn't help matters that many in Tanzania still live according to superstition. For decades, people with albinism have been thought of as ghosts and bad omens. It is also believed that albinos don't die; they just disappear.

"I was always hearing these tales, people here believe that albinos do not die, they disappear so I was always wondering how I am going to disappear," Stanford said.

The idea that the body parts of albinos can bring wealth is a recent phenomenon. Some have been known to use human hair from albinos woven into fishing nets for good luck.

At the Mwanza homestead of witch doctor Jackson Kanyerere, who offers his patients medical and spiritual care, he told ABC News that the person who started this superstition wasn't even a witch doctor.

Click here to read one repoter's journey to investigate albino killings

"There was a man who was not a witch doctor himself, but he came up with the idea that an albino potion can make a person rich, so they started stealing body parts from the graves," said Kanyerere. "When they ran out of graves, they decided that now were going to hunt down live human beings."

The murders of albinos have shocked the international community and embarrassed the Tanzanian government.

"Can you imagine somebody chops off my hands, he just leaves me bleeding there, and he just runs away with the two arms, and damn the consequences?" Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda said in an interview with ABC News.

Pinda put out a plea and assured anonymity to anyone who could come forward with information about the killings of albinos.

"We simply cannot sit like this," said Pinda. "And we called upon the masses to come out. 'Please let us get an idea as to whom you think in your village is a possible suspect.' Now, you'd be surprised, people came out in hundreds."

Killings Spur International Outcry

Tanzania has taken other steps to address the killings, banning witch doctors' licenses and appointing a government representative with albinism, but the killings continue. More than 200 people have been arrested in connection with the murders. Just weeks ago, three men were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging for killing a teenage boy with albinism. This is first prosecution since the murders began two years ago.

Pinda cites a lack of resources as a major obstacle -- 70 percent of the police officers in rural areas don't have access to vehicles -- and judges have to travel from village to village to try cases.

Stanford says her attackers were caught the same day as the attack and arrested. Their blood-stained clothing gave them away. And though she knew and identified one of her attackers as a neighbor, none have been brought to trial. Recently, Stanford was ordered to vacate her home, a temporary safe house provided by the government. She thinks she will have to return to the village where she was attacked.

To protect children with albinism in and around Mwanza, the government has started sending them to the Mitindo Primary School. In the last year, more than 100 children have joined the already overflowing classroom and dorms of the school, which has become a safe haven for children with albinism.

Under the Same Sun, a nongovernmental agency based in Canada, has traveled to the school to distribute supplies, but more help is needed.

"If you have albinism in Tanzania, you live in a constant state of fear," said founder Peter Ash, a former Baptist minister turned businessmen and philanthropist, who has albinism.

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UNICEF has condemned the murders as a heinous and systematic violation of human rights.

"UNICEF, together with the entire U.N. system in Tanzania, will continue to urge and work with the government and other stakeholders to galvanize action to ensure that such barbaric and inhumane practices are stopped, perpetrators brought to justice, and ensure albinos like other citizens enjoy their fundamental rights to life, freedom and protection," UNICEF said in a statement.

Since ABC News' interview with Prime Minister Pinda four months ago, four more people with albinism have been killed, including a 7-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her grandmother at gunpoint. Her headless body was found the next day -- also missing a hand.

But the threat to albinos is spreading throughout the continent. In neighboring Burundi, at least 11 albinos have been killed since last year and a 2-year-old boy, in Ghana, was terrorized in a botched kidnapping plot.

While the government and international community work to bring the murders to justice, Stanford lives with daily reminders of the pain of her attack. Even the simplest tasks are now impossible for Stanford, and she can no longer take care of her son.

"Sometimes I cry, because it's the same thing over and over again. ...Waking up, sitting on the bench and when I'm tired of sitting, I go and sleep," Stanford said. "I miss feeling the love of my child, because I can't even carry or hug him anymore."

Click here to find out how to help Tanzanians with albinism