Seeds of Certainty part VI – Fishermen, Miners and ‘Traditional’ Practices

20 Aug

Following yesterday’s post…

The many attacks on and murders of albinos from Tanzania and other African countries over the past several years are all equally appalling. It’s difficult to read some of the personal accounts and to watch interviews without becoming extremely emotional. The sort of abuse and discrimination to which they were subjected before reports of these attacks became common was bad enough, and that continues to this day. But I haven’t come across any convincing analysis of what lies behind these attacks and murders. Murderers and other criminals, obviously, but why?

It’s as if a kneejerk reference to witchcraft, found in almost every article about these incidents, explains it all. But if that other popular kneejerk reference, to the profit motive, is accurate, who has followed the money? Sure, Vicky Ntetema went to see a witchdoctor when she was working for the BBC and heard about figures such as $2,000 dollars for limbs and the same for potions (for all the BBC and other articles about the Tanzanian albino murders, visit this page). I certainly wouldn’t want to diminish her work, but that was back in 2007 and the problem escalated around that time.

The usual witchdoctor/wealth connection is made in the first paragraph of this article on the Voice of America website. The story is about four attacks which all occurred in a 16 day period in January/February of this year; three of the victims were children. A 95 year old man who is not an albino was also killed trying to protect his grandson, whose arm was chopped off in the attack. A second albino victim also survived and a mother was injured protecting her children against attackers. The fourth albino victim also lost an arm.

The article refers to witchcraft as an ‘entrenched practice’, which may or may not be true, but seems vague. It certainly doesn’t explain why such practices have come to include maimings and murders. The belief that albinos are somehow less than human has also been attested elsewhere, and may be true [I mean the belief may well exist, not that it is true; clarification added 8 Sept], but again, why did albino killings become very common some time after around 2006?

Peter Ash, a Canadian who started Under The Same Sun, an NGO that advocates for albinos, is quoted as saying that a ‘good deal’ of money is paid out for body parts. As well as citing $2-4,000 for a limb, he says a complete set of organs sells for over $100,000. But where did this $100,000 figure come from? Ash even asks who would have that kind of money in Tanzania, but what I don’t understand is why that question doesn’t ring alarm bells. Very few people would have that kind of money. Clearly some people are willing to take huge risks to make even a little money, fishing and mining are risky, but who spends that kind of money on potions and body parts?

A lot of people have been killed and maimed over the last 6 or 7 years in Tanzania and it is still not really clear why this has happened. It is also not clear how to address the issue adequately and make sure that there are no more victims, that those involved are arrested, prosecuted and punished to the limits of the law, and that albinos can live without fear of attacks or discrimination of any kind. But there is a danger that the so called market in albino body parts has been talked up from a few isolated incidents into a phenomenon that everyone has heard about and that anyone can contribute to.

I suspect that the ‘murky and secretive world’ of witchcraft is predominantly the preserve of the poor and desperate, not the rich and powerful, who have ready access to accountants, lawyers, consultants, journalists and other ‘sorcerers’ of the rich world. Dirt poor fishermen and artisanal miners fish and mine because there are few alternatives in their region. They may at times avail of locally available and affordable services, traditional or otherwise. But impoverished, uneducated and unempowered people have always made great scapegoats, and great media fodder, too.


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