Journey to Tanzania: Reporter Exposes Epidemic of Albino Killings

Tanzanians with albinism face gruesome attacks, extreme sun exposure.

MWANZA, Tanzania, Oct. 2, 2009— -- I had just 24 hours to prepare for my trip to Africa. We had been reporting on the killing of Tanzanians with albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a lack of pigment in people's eyes, skin and hair, as part of an ABC News hour special.

In Tanzania, there has been a grotesque rash of albino killings: 54 people have been murdered since 2007, though observers say more incidences go unreported. Renegade witch doctors have convinced locals that there are magical properties in the blood, bones and skin of people with albinism, which has created a sickening black market where the limb of an albino can bring in anywhere from $500 to $2,000. In a country where the per capita income is roughly $450 a year, that's a macabre fortune.

Eager to meet Tanzanians with albinism, I got ready in a whirlwind. I had to get malaria pills, a nasty trio of vaccines and a tetanus booster in less than 24 hours. I ran to Patagonia in a panic. I braced my three young sons and their slightly anxious father for the fact that they'd have to get along without me for a week. Then I dove into our closets in search of baseball hats and toys. I've seen poverty and deprivation on trips before and I always end up wishing I had brought something along for the kids I met. I packed a huge duffel bag full of extra baby clothes, toys and "life-saving" hats.

I say "life-saving" because on average albinos in Tanzania die of painful skin cancer in their thirties, having been unprotected for a lifetime under the scorching African sun. With a collection of hats and a camera in tow, we set off on our journey to Africa.

Navigating Rural Tanzania

We traveled to Tanzania and interviewed the family of a girl with albinism who was murdered.

Getting there wasn't easy. Driving through rural Tanzania after some heavy rain is a bone-jarring adventure; 5 kilometers can take 30 minutes to traverse. The muddy craters that make up the roads here make you marvel at the shock absorbers on a 4-wheel drive ... and appreciate the smooth highways back home.

During the less bumpy part of the drive, James Mitchell, a veteran ABC News cameraman based in South Africa, doubled as a fabulous tour guide, leading us through the Rift Valley and ultimately to meet the family of Eunice Bahati -- an 11-year-old girl with albinism who was butchered in the family's two-room mud hut -- only one room away from her two sisters.

Click here to find out how to help Tanzanians with albinism

The two surviving sisters, who also have albinism, told the tale of the attack with a haunted look in their eyes. Traumatized, they told us they were too afraid to sleep at night, too terrified to walk the two miles to school each way -- having heard an unspeakable violence.

Eunice's younger sister Shida proudly showed me some of her tattered homework. I can't help, but think of my children back home with a pang of guilt. I'm grateful that I brought a little something -- toys and hats -- to give Shida and the other children.

Our journey continued. We overnighted in a small, very modest and rustic Catholic convent where bathing involves a plastic bucket of hot water. After 12 hours an hour flight, a ferry ride across Lake Victoria and a marathon dusty road trip with open windows and no A/C was the best shower I'd had in a long, long time.

Life for Tanzanians with Albinism

On a visit to the Mitindo Primary school in rural Tanzania, I met children with albinism, who escaped the threat of violence, but are still very much in endangered by the sun. The children with albinism at Mitindo Primary school have leathery skin. It looks and feels calloused from all the scabbed-over sunburns.

The school, which serves as a refuge from the gruesome attacks, is a rare ray of hope in this country, but without books, paper or writing utensils, it needs more help. We passed out hats, clothes and toys, but hundreds of children -- some with albinism, some without -- live in grinding poverty. The albino children live, two to a single bunk -- each draped with mosquito netting -- with a backpack full of possessions hanging over it, which serve as make-shift dresser drawers.

Many of the children here are born into families where the father has abandoned them because of the taboo of albinism. It's considered a curse on the family. The mothers often struggle, mightily working to care for these children. Several children at the school tell me their mothers come to visit when they can.

I sat speechless when I saw one baby's mouth, black with scabs where his lips should be. He was just 3-years-old and was sitting on a teenage student's lap. His parents had brought him here to escape the threat of violence, but his care was basically left to the other students. It makes your soul ache to bear witness to their suffering.

Click here to find out how to help Tanzanians with albinism

Attacks on Albinos

The attacks on albinos in Tanzania are often carried out with machetes. The weapons, left over from wars, are used in daily life with nonchalance. In a traffic jam one day, a man pushed a herd of cows, hitting them with the flat of a machete.

Weapons are also used by bandits to hijack cars and buses on the highway. Along the Burundi, Rwanda border in northern Tanzania, where poverty pervades, we hear about bandits hijacking and carrying out untold violence. While I wasn't thrilled about travelling with men with submachine guns, I'm now very happy to have the protection of armed guards.

We met up with the local chief of police -- en route to patrol for bandits. He was also the lead investigator in the brutal beating of Mariamu Stanford, 28, a single mother with albinism from rural Tanzania, who we were on our way to interview.

Mariamu is just one of two Tanzanians with albinism known to have survived the gruesome attacks.

"The killers are too cruel...they cut you while you're alive," the police chief told us. "It is a slow pain death, but to Mariamu, she was luck[y]."

Though Mariamu lost both her arms, she maintained her spirit. You can see my interview with Mariamu on "20/20" tonight. It is a visit that will stay with me forever.