Call for Inquiry into Media’s Coverage of ‘Tanzanian Albino Murders’

9 Sep

Instead of merely using the word ‘witchcraft’ in one of the earliest mainstream media articles on a series of murders of albino people in Tanzania, the author could as well have issued an edict that henceforth, all articles on the subject use a term with ‘witch’ in it, or some other, equally obscure term. Because every single subsequent mainstream media article on the subject did use such a term.

Other terms that crept in include: witchdoctor, foreign witchdoctor, herbal medicine, herbalist, ancient tradition, black arts, black magic, satanism (satanic inspired), traditional healer, magic potion, ritual medicine, ritual killing/murder, muti, muti medicine, sorcery, cannibals, magic potion, child sacrifice, superstition, taboo, fetish, voodoo, devil worship, occult, etc [There’s a partial list of articles consulted on this page.]

‘Here be Dragons…’, began the BBC, and the rest of the ‘free’ press joined in unison. In the years following 2007, which marked the beginning of the media frenzy concerning attacks on and murders of albino people in Tanzania, no convincing explanation was ever given for why people should be attacked and killed just because, apparently, they are albinos.

Indeed, no light was shed on how that first article found online (there are likely to be many articles that have not been found by this study) had already ‘established’ that the ‘four deaths (of albino people) in the past three months’ (later reports suggest as many as 20 deaths in 2007, for example, the Legal and Human Rights Report says more than 20 albino people were killed between October and mid-December, 2007) were a result of the work of ‘witch-doctors’; but there was already a call for arrests.

Not that any subsequent research has shown that witches/witchdoctors/traditional healers, etc, were not behind the attacks and murders. In fact, one of the biggest single barriers to understanding these attacks and murders is that none of the articles examined have bothered to make clear exactly what they mean by ‘witch’, or whatever other term they used. For years, old people suspected of ‘witchcraft’ have been persecuted and lynched; such lynchings still occur, but they are surely not the target of these articles?

The World Health Organization estimates that in “some Asian and African countries, 80% of the population depend on traditional medicine for primary health care”. Not only are conditions in most public health facilities in Tanzania appalling and dangerous, but many people are not able to afford them, neither the fees (official or otherwise), nor any of the other costs involved, such as transport and drugs. There is little left for poorer people other than some kind of local healer. Are these the targets of all the media articles about attacks on and murders of albino people in Tanzania?

Difficult as it is to believe, the government soon declared a ‘ban’ on all kinds of ‘witchcraft’. The undefined set of activities that this poorly defined ‘group’ engage in becomes a target of intense media interest. But not for the first time. Poor and vulnerable old women and men in rural areas, who are probably becoming isolated from their communities, are not the only targets of savage persecution, beatings and lynchings. Virtually anyone said to be involved in any area of ‘witchcraft’, whether they hand out traditional cures for illnesses or potions said to make their clients wealthy, has gone through all manner of threats to their livelihood over the years.

In the mid 1990s, the Kenyan government was somehow persuaded that various elements of another poorly defined set of activities, devil worship, were ‘rife’ in rural areas, in schools, in (recently established) churches, in public places, everywhere. A government commission, headed by senior representatives of better established churches, was set up to investigate and several years later they, apparently, presented a report to parliament. The report was never made public, but the media was able to salivate over its possible contents for years, and the issue of devil worship is alive in the minds of many people who lived through those years.

What has witchcraft got to do with devil worship? Well, they were all lumped together by the Kenyan commission, just like all the terms listed above. “President Moi appointed the Commission in 1994 in response to public concern about a perceived resurgence of witchcraft, ritual murders, and other ostensibly “Satanic” practices associated with aspects of traditional indigenous religions.” That one sentence damns a whole host of groups.

The document continues: “The Commission’s report included numerous reports of ritual murder, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and feats of magic allegedly done by using powers acquired through such acts.” Attacks on and murders of albino people in Tanzaina, from very early on, were seen as ‘ritual’ murders. Even descriptions of those murders became more lurid, listing the various parts of bodies, including their skin, and what they would be used for, bleeding and drinking of blood, hacking limbs off live victims, etc. Who wouldn’t immediately see ‘witchcraft’ in these bloody attacks and murders in Tanzania?

Given the sheer weight of media footballs to choose from, few may remember Tanzania’s (human) ‘skin trade’. But it was a big enough story to attract attention for several years in the late 90s and early 2000s.  An article in 1999 refers to “a series of [at least three] brutal murders in which the skins and organs of the victims are apparently being sold for use in witchcraft”. The article even claims that a “human skin can fetch a price of up to $9,000”, just as the media later reveled in claims about how much money could be made from the parts and entire bodies of albino people.

Two years later it is reported that a gang, a ringleader called Adamu and twelve members, had been arrested in connection with similar murders, these also taking place in the Southern region of Mbeya (the majority of attacks on and murders of albino people took place in Mwanza, in the North West). The price range is now said to be “$2400 and $9600, apparently depending on the age of the victim”. It is stressed that the ultimate market for these skins is West Africa and those involved are described as having become ‘expert’ at mutilating the bodies.

After another two years the issue is back on the BBC site; again it is stressed that the market is “outside Tanzania”, and there is a “huge demand”. Again, the murders are said to have taken place in the South of the country and there is mention of ‘ritual’ and ‘witchcraft’. The total number of deaths is said to have been six. In common with the later attacks on and murders of albino people, it is implied that the skin is used by practitioners of witchcraft to bring wealth to the client: “This is also to educate people that they do not have to to use human skin to become rich”.

None of the above tells us why albino people in Tanzania were subsequently mutilated and murdered, why the bodies of albino people were dug up and parts hacked off, why several people attempted to ‘sell’ an albino person for use by ‘witchdoctors’. But it gives some idea of what the use of the term ‘witch’ and various other terms adds to an article about these horrific events: absolutely nothing. It simply labels the issue as a media football, to be kicked around along with other, similarly labelled bumf, a hotch-potch of rubbish that goes together to make up what counts as ‘African’ reportage.

It is estimated that over 100 albino people in Tanzania were attacked and over 70 killed since (probably) some time in 2006. Those who carried out the attacks, for whatever motive, deserve to be punished for what they did. But, despite hundreds of arrests claimed, hardly anyone has been punished. Reports are vague and unreliable, perhaps three or four people were convicted. One of those convicted was Kenyan, for human trafficking, as the victim was neither mutilated nor murdered.

So what’s the problem? Witchdoctors are not that hard to find. If their work becomes a big secret they don’t get many clients. The media loves to refer to how secretive they are, but given the sort of things that they have been implicated in over the years by the same media, who could blame them? Some may have become so secretive that they no longer get any clients at all; they may have found something safer to do. Just about anything would be safer, really.

More importantly ‘witchdoctors’ do not, according to evidence available, tend to charge a lot for their work; how could they, most of their clients are poor? So if ‘witchdoctors’ are not that hard to find, rich witchdoctors must really stand out. If there is any truth in the various rumors about how much they charge for ‘potions’ containing parts of mutilated and murdered albinos, some of them, probably a mere handful, must be noticeably well off. But no article found has produced evidence of a wealthy ‘witchdoctor’, only rumors, the media’s stock in trade when writing about ‘Africa’.

No article has produced evidence of a wealthy client, either. Artisanal miners and fishermen, mining and fishing being among the few sources of income in Mwanza, are frequently mentioned. But they, along with the hapless ‘witchdoctors’, have been blamed for many other things. Some sources mentioned politicians as possible clients of witchdoctors and predicted many further maimings and killings of albino people in the run up to the 2010 elections. Either there was no surge in violence against albino people, or the media merely failed to report it. So do politicians give large sums of money to ‘witchdoctors’ in return for success? Perhaps they now settle for potions that don’t contain human remains.

Where is all the money involved in the often referred to ‘lucrative’ trade in albino body parts? Most articles stress the rural character of places where maimings and murders of albino people take place; they stress the poverty of the victims and the people around them; they stress the high levels of superstition and sometimes the low levels of education and the lack of opportunity in the area. How many rogue ‘witchdoctors’ were there, ever? And how many wealthy clients? Can the media, after all their ‘investigations’, over a period of so many years, tell us anything that is certain?

Or should we suspect that much of the talk of a ‘lucrative’ trade in albino body parts, talk that may have have contributed to so many maimings and deaths, was to a large extent the result of a media frenzy, that there are few wealthy ‘witchdoctors’ or clients, if any, that most, if not all of the perpetrators of these horrendous acts are still free, and that if anything could have been done to prevent such attacks it has not yet been done?

There were several further attacks and deaths this year. Late though it is, there needs to be a full inquiry into this phenomenon, one that takes into account the possible role of the media, the police and other officials, political, church and traditional leaders, everyone who may have something to add to finding out what went on, and what is still going on. We owe this, at least, to all the people who have already suffered and to those who may be protected by the results of a thorough investigation.

[I will be putting together data and sending it to the media outlets involved, calling for an inquiry into the shoddy coverage of the many attacks on and murders of Tanzanian albino people over the past seven years, and the failure of all those involved to identify the perpetrators and to protect other albino people from subsequent attacks and murders.]

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