Tanzania: No Albino People Were Harmed in the Making of This Story?

14 Sep

Early in April 2008, President Jakaya Kikwete is quoted as saying “I am told that people kill albinos and chop their body parts, including fingers, believing they can get rich.” This kind of statement, which has appeared many times over the seven years of reporting on attacks on albino people, always needs to be read with care. Other accounts, vague as they tend to be, suggest that there are people who do the killing and maiming, people who buy the body parts and people who pay for those parts or ‘potions’ made from those parts.

Those are three very different ways of ‘getting rich’. The first represents a serious crime, with the expectation of substantial reward. The first does not require that there be any ‘superstition’ involved, though it doesn’t preclude it. The second is also a crime, but the expectation is that there are enough superstitious people to buy potions and other services using parts of albino people. The person providing these services doesn’t need to be superstitious either, though they may very well be. The third crime very likely requires the ‘client’, the person paying for the service, to be superstitious.

It’s very important to distinguish between these different crimes in order to understand how such attacks could begin and continue for years. Each type of participant takes different kinds of risk, risks of being apprehended, financial risks, etc. Some attackers have, apparently, said they were sent by a witchdoctor to find a victim and promised money in return. The witchdoctor needs some degree of certainty that their clients will pay large sums of money. The client is the only one who must be superstitious, or somehow deluded, about the power of witchdoctors and the services they provide.

Media accounts emphasize the issue of superstition and often remark how widespread superstition is in some areas or, especially, among certain groups of people: “Superstitious miners and fishermen in the [Lake Zone] region hoping to get rich quick have been accused of fuelling the demand for the potions.” This statement has been frequently paraphrased, and even copied and pasted, as if superstition gives some kind of insight into these killings. Sure, superstitious people can be found, everywhere. But most superstitious people do not generally carry out brutal attacks, maimings and killings. (Nor do most witchdoctors, fishermen, miners or ‘businesspeople’.)

Not only are media accounts incomplete, vague and often rather unconvincing, but they have tended to repeat the same sorts of gossip and rumor for seven years, with few noticeable insights that one might expect from investigation, research or analysis. If we want to understand how these attacks began, how can we do that? What kind of data and analysis can we use? Remarks about witchdoctors, miners and fishermen are nothing new, and long predate attacks on albino people. More importantly, none of these groups are noticeably rich, not that anyone has demonstrated, anyhow. Commentators like to imply some kind of organized crime, but how organized is it? How ‘lucrative’ is it?

Looking for as much information as I could find online about attacks on and killings of albino people in Tanzania between 2006 and 2013, I came across a fairly small quantity of empirical data and a somewhat larger quantity of speculation. While there was a fair amount of disagreement about much of the empirical data, there was a fair amount of agreement about the speculation. This could be the opposite to what one might expect, unless the entire media became contaminated by some of the more ‘pornographic’ among the early reports.

After all, it should be possible to say with a fair amount of certainty how many albino people there are in Tanzania, how many were attacked and how many were killed, where and when these events occurred, and the like. Those are examples of empirical data. Who may have been involved in these events and what their motives were would seem, I think, more a matter of speculation, at least until some investigation and research has been carried out.

Yet almost all sources agreed, right from the very start, that witchcraft (or something similar, or thought to be similar) was behind the attacks; and witches, people perceived to be witches (and similar sorts of people, and those thought to be similar enough) were demanding albino bodies and parts of albinos; their ‘clients’ were demanding potions (and similar, you get the picture) that would make them rich (yes, almost all the articles said that wealth was what the clients wanted). Therefore, there were also these ‘middlemen’, sometimes referred to as ‘businessmen’ (both terms being suitably vague), who were carrying out the brutal maimings, murders and other crimes.

I have searched numerous articles and documents to create a table of all the attacks where victims were named, and/or enough detail was given to show that there probably was an attack or violent or threatening event, matters that could be further investigated, so that a more accurate picture of these dreadful murders and attacks can be built up. I have also tabulated some data about numbers of attacks, numbers of named victims, numbers of articles, numbers of victims claimed by the media, etc.

Whereas sources are in reasonable agreement that at least one hundred of these incidents took place (some say there were many hundreds, and that most are undocumented), that about 70 albino people were killed and about 30 were maimed (or otherwise injured), I have only been able to find accounts of 71 victims, some of them fairly scanty. Only 46 of these victims (65%) have been named, although some have only been partially named (only first or second name). 24 out of those 71 victims identified, or partially identified, were killed. Only ten of those who died have been named (or partially named).

The cumulative number of deaths estimated by the media, which seems to be almost entirely speculative, especially in the first few years, waxes and wanes. Some of the earlier articles say there were 4 murders in the three months to December of 2007, but the Tanzania Human Rights Report for 2007, published some time later, claims there were 20 during this period (prior to this, there was only one documented, in April 2006). The numbers estimated for 2008 range from 19-30, which may or may not suggest a halving in killings during 2008. By the end of 2009 numbers have jumped to 35, and then to 53 early in the year, this being the highest mentioned for 2009. In 2010, the figures rose to 71, without rising above 72 by 2013.

The number of incidents reported by the media in those years makes a very different pattern. From 1 in 2006, reported in the LHRC report published about a year later, there were 3 in 2007 (all reported in Under the Same Sun’s document listing 34 victims, mostly survivors). The highest number of identifiable incidents was reported in 2008, 17 in all. Numbers fell to 11 in 2009 and 8 in 2010, only to rise to 15 in 2011 and drop to 7 in 2012 and 8 in 2013. So there were two peak years for incidents described in the media. The number of articles describing these events took a third pattern, rising from 1 in 2007 to a peak of 20 in 2008 and 22 in 2009, then falling to 4 in 2013.

If, as much of the online media claims, there were about 70 murders of albino people in the last 7 years, an average of 10 a year, why has the media feeding frenzy failed to document the majority of them? Western murder victims usually have a name; but only one in 7 Tanzanian albinos said to have been murdered has been named (or partially named). About one fifth of those maimed or suffering some other kind of injury have no name either, despite being victims of crimes such as attempted murder, abduction, rape and false imprisonment.

Media coverage of attacks on and murders of albino people in Tanzania has been appallingly sloppy. So I am prepared to believe that there may have been additional, undocumented attacks and murders. But it is also hard to avoid concluding that the conviction that albino body parts can bring great wealth, whether to criminals, witchdoctors or their clients, is partly based, perhaps largely based, on media reports. The involvement of ‘witchdoctors’ and the promise of wealth are two of the most enduring concepts in the media, appearing in almost every one of the eighty or so articles I have used for this study.

Attacks, maimings, murders, rapes and other crimes are carried out by criminals, and they deserve to be prosecuted and punished for their crimes. But the media should become more cautious when certain kinds of crime appear to display a pattern. Given the constant mention of ‘great wealth’, it would have been more responsible to play down this aspect of the crimes; not by failing to mention the oft cited amounts that could be made, but by emphasizing that no clear instances of large sums of money changing hands have been documented; no rich witchdoctors were identified; the evidence, at best, points to rumor and gossip about money, nothing more.

Apparently there were four attacks in a period of 16 days earlier this year, resulting in two murders, two maimings and attacks on two other people. It’s not too late to look back on the last seven years of reporting and set the record straight, and doing so may help to ensure these these attacks eventually cease to occur. So far, media coverage has been insulting to albino people, their families and friends, and to Tanzanian people.

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2 Responses to “Tanzania: No Albino People Were Harmed in the Making of This Story?”

  1. joe stan December 9, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Good point but lacking any guess as to why there are not more full names on the list
    of attacks or murders
    Can there be fear from family members that they too will be in trouble
    ALSO WHY SO FEW CONVICTIONS
    COULD GOVERNMENT/POLICE BE ON THE TAKE
    ALBINO GROUPS AROUND THE WORLD SHOULD BAND TOGETHER
    AND WORK TOGETHER ON AN EDUCATION AND JUSTICE SOLUTION

  2. Simon Collery December 9, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    I agree, but there’s been enough guessing and too little proper investigation. Whatever the solution may be, it would be good to establish why these attacks occurred and why they continued for six years. Otherwise there’s no saying what the solution may be. What if the press did make a lot of it up? Then the solution would be quite different from the knee-jerk ban on ‘witchcraft’ and the mass arrests of people suspected of being involved.

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