Tanzania Albino Killings: Media Follows Stories or Stories Follow Media?

19 Aug

I have created this page to link to the 39 articles and titles, in date order, that I used to put together this post (last visited August 20, 2013)

At the end of 2010 I was tasked with checking some ‘facts’ about Tanzanian albinos for a grant proposal that the NGO I was working for had written. However, reliable information was surprisingly hard to come by. Not only were there numerous discrepancies in the most basic types of data, but the many articles that I read at the time, and the ones I read in the last couple of days, don’t appear to give much insight into why an estimated 100 Tanzanian albinos were attacked and over 70 killed between 2007 and 2012.

How many albinos are there in Tanzania? The 2002 census estimated the number to be around 7,000 and growth rates would have brought that up to about 10,000 over 10 years. But the earliest article on the BBC dealing with albinos in Tanzania cites a figure of 17,000. Over the following 10 years the BBC cites this figure on at least five occasions. But they also put the number at 4,000-173,000, 150,000, 170,000, 173,000, 200,000 and more than 200,000. Other sources go right up to 750,000.

That first article in 2003 was about discrimination against albinos. It wasn’t till December 2007, from what I can work out, that the BBC first reported the issue of albino killings, a story that was to crop up over thirty times over the next few years, with 15 articles appearing in 2009 alone. In December 2007 it was reported that there had been 4 deaths in the last three months. Mention was made of the use of albino body parts by witchdoctors to produce potions that could make people rich.

Every single subsequent article I could find mentioned witchdoctors (or witchcraft, sorcery, magic, traditional healers and herbalists, without any distinctions being made between these). Almost every article mentioned potions that could make people wealthy. Mentions were also made of luck, health, special powers and happiness. Indeed, some whole sentences in some articles seemed to have been copied and pasted into subsequent articles. Yet the figures for numbers of victims, albinos in Tanzania, people arrested, convicted, etc, jump around, and are often vague.

Several of the articles suggest that rich business people sometimes consult witchdoctors looking for ways of making themselves wealthier. There are also early mentions of fishermen and miners consulting them in the hope of being more successful in their pursuits, and these two professions are mentioned several times later on. There are a few mentions of ‘foreigners’ being involved, especially as intermediaries, and later on a ‘network’ of criminals. But it must be remembered, witchdoctors, fishermen, miners and foreigners are often made scapegoats for crime, epidemics, ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, etc.

Several other juicy items are thrown in every now and again: police collusion, grave robbing (resulting in dead albinos being buried in concrete), a pastor found with albino body parts in his posession, witch naming, etc. Of course, these may all be relevant, but the overall impression I get from over 30 articles is that little or no genuine investigation, or even fact-checking, was carried out. There seems to have been very little analysis and little attempt to figure out why these brutal murders became very common some time in 2007 and continued up to 2012.

Do these murders continue to happen? Do ‘witchdoctors’ continue to demand huge prices for potions with albino body parts? Do rich businessmen, miners and fishermen continue to pay the vast (by Tanzanian standards) amounts of money demanded? Do intermediaries, foreign or otherwise, continue to search for new victims that they expect to bring them big fortunes?

I’m not singling out the BBC for any other reason than that it is quite easy to search for articles about tanzanian albinos on their site; also, articles about these killings are so numerous, it would be very hard to keep the task small enough to complete in the time I’ve got. Nor am I criticizing the BBC, exclusively, for doing a bad job of covering these killings. I wouldn’t say they have done a very good job, but there have been far worse articles written on the subject.

In particular, I would not say that the BBC has emphasized or exaggerated the amounts of money involved in the way that some other media outlets have. There were mentions of many tens of thousands of dollars for one body a few years ago and it is beyond my scope to search for such claims to compare with the BBC’s coverage. But media claims about the amounts of money involved, I would argue, are very important. The BBC tends to be vague: $2,000 per body part, $2,000 per potion, up to 10s of thousands of dollars per potion. The GNP per capita in Tanzania is currently $1,500, so even those are significant amounts of money.

Just how high people have been led to expect buyers of bodies and parts to go may be reflected in a police sting operation, where a Kenyan man promised his albino friend a job in Tanzania but found that the middlemen were the police. Apparently they offered him over $250,000. If someone is paying that much, the potions made out of the body parts must be worth a lot more. In fact, the amounts are so high that the Kenyan must have been a little bit suspicious.

So did huge amounts of money frequently change hands for bodies, body parts and potions? Who paid thousands of dollars for these? And where are these very wealthy witchdoctors and middlemen? Someone living in a village, and most witchdoctors are said to live in villages, would really stand out if they suddenly started spending a lot or evidently had a lot of money. Were any people found who had received large amounts of money, or were these just notional figures bandied about, sometimes growing exponentially in the minds of eager journalists (and to repeat, I am not talking about the BBC here)?

After that first article in 2007, the BBC ran a further 12 articles about or mentioning Tanzanian albino killings in 2008, 15 in 2009, 5 in 2010 and only one in 2012 and in 2013. Over that period, the estimates of numbers of victims went from 4 in the three months previous to the writing of the first article, through figures in the 20, 30s, 40s and 50s, jumping to the 70s in 2012 and 2013.

The media covered the killings; more killings gave rise to more articles, up to a point. But how can we tell that all these stories about huge amounts of money didn’t encourage some people to try and make a bit for themselves? That may sound unfair to journalists who covered the killings, and I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t have done so. But even among the BBC articles, the apparent lack of solid investigation and fact checking makes me wonder what lies behind some of the claims that have been made in various articles that have come out about these dreadful murders.

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One Response to “Tanzania Albino Killings: Media Follows Stories or Stories Follow Media?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Media in Africa: Beware of Natives | Blogtivist - November 3, 2013

    […] coming up to about six years since the international media ‘discovered’ the Tanzanian albino attacks and killings, even though they had been reported in local media for some time. The sloppy and offensive coverage […]

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