The Forgotten And Ongoing Persecution Of African Albinos

Albinism is a rare, hereditary and non-degenerative disease consisting of the reduced or lack of production of melanin, the pigment that colours the skin, hair, and eyes. In people with albinism, pigmentation in these areas takes on different shades depending on the amount of melanin in the body. Across Africa, these people are persecuted, discriminated against, and even hunted.

“Everyone thinks I am cursed,” said Cameroonian primary school student Douangni Sandrine. “My family has rejected me. My family does not want to see me. No matter what I do, they ignore it because I am albino. I have no dignity in their eyes.”

The widespread discrimination against albinos in Africa is partially due to the much higher incidence rate. Around one in every 20,000 people worldwide is affected by albinism, but in Africa, the rate is much higher. In Zimbabwe, for example, it is estimated that one in 4,000 people is albino, while in Tanzania this number is closer to one in 1,429. This is because rural tribes have a tendency to move less and have a more isolated genetic pool.

Discrimination is also based in the unsubstantiated beliefs and witchcraft prevalent on the continent. African albinos are the object of derision, verbal aggression, and social discrimination, and are regarded by their families as divine punishment. Fathers often abandon their wives when they give birth to a child with albinism, and sometimes mothers, afraid of the social repercussions and driven to prevent bringing dishonour and disgrace to the family, will abandon or even kill their children if they are born albino.

In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, albinos suffer tremendous persecution, are considered the bearers of bad luck, and are called zeru zeru in Swahili, or “ghost people.” In other areas, however, the spread of sorcerers and healers has propagated myths such as the superstition that people with albinism are endowed with magical powers, with body parts that would bring good luck and success. Therefore, these people are, on the one hand, killed and tortured because they are considered bearers of bad luck – from 2014 to 2019, 150 people with albinism were reported killed just in Malawi – and on the other hand, are simultaneously mutilated or raped (because of the belief that sexual intercourse with a woman with albinism can cure sexually transmitted diseases such as A.I.D.S.). Kakmeni Wembou Raphael, head of the Cameroon Association for the Promotion of the Albino, told Anadolu Agency that albino children grow up fearing the discrimination and kidnappings that are very common in Cameroon. Kidnapped albinos can be sold on the black market for 15 to 30 dollars.

Attacks on people with albinism have decreased in recent years, and protections have minorly improved. Attendees at the January 2018 African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa supplemented the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights by adopting a new Protocol on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, requiring states which have signed it to eliminate any violation of disabled people’s rights, and for the first time, 12 people were convicted for the murder of a boy with albinism on April 29th, 2022. (22-year-old MacDonald Masambuka disappeared from Nakawa village on March 9th, 2018, after going to a friend’s shop to buy a mat. His body was found just less than a month later.)

Still, people with albinism remain in fear. But this conviction unfortunately did not stop the murders. A few months after the murder conviction, in November 2022, a three-year-old girl was killed in the village of Mawawa Tadala Chirwa while sleeping with her grandmother.

The situation for African albinos remains perilous. More must be done to protect these people’s rights and safety.