The Ever-Widening Rift Between the Media and Reality in Africa

17 Sep

There has been little agreement about how many albino people in Tanzania have been killed, apparently for their body parts, between 2006 and 2013. But since the middle of 2010, around 70 deaths has been a common estimate, and one which did not increase much over the following three years. The number of articles identified about these events comes to 71 in total, reaching a peak of 23 in 2009. The number of documented victims, of both deadly and non-deadly attacks, is also about 71 (some may not be albinos, some may not be Tanzanian and some may or may not have been injured or killed), peaking at 17 in 2008 and again at 15 in 2011. But only 24 of these documented incidents are reported deaths; of these deaths, only 10 are named by any of the various online sources I have examined.

Graph

[Click on image for larger version]

A list of all the sources used for collecting various data is available, which includes a timeline of events, at least as they were reported by the media. It’s not an exact timeline, with some dates referring to publication rather than the occurrence of the events, which may not even be made clear; the list of sources and other sets of data are, of course, a work-in-progress (which may never be completed).

The timeline starts about 9 years before the first report of an albino killing, in 1997, when the New York Times runs an article about albinos in Zimbabwe and their struggle for equality; there are even mentions of witchcraft and superstition. Other articles during this period report similar issues, in various African countries, but there is no mention of killings or maimings. Even a peer-reviewed article in August 2006 in BioMed Central makes no mention of such events, though it notes that “People with albinism also face social discrimination as a result of their difference in appearance”.

In April 2007, the Tanzanian Human Rights Report (for 2006) lists public executions that they have recorded for 2006. One particular incident, which occurred in April, stands out: “Two brothers, Benedict and William David (29) were believed to have murdered and taken the organs of Alex Aaron, an albino. When the brothers were arrested, the villagers began hurtling stones at them until they died.” No further comment has been found about this incident, even in subsequent reports. However, a later Human Rights Report (for 2007) says that there were 20 albino people killed in 2007.

In December 2007 there were two reports of attacks on albinos, and a later report by Under the Same Sun (UTSS) names three people who were attacked, but not killed. The first mention by the BBC found relating to attacks on Tanzanian albino people was another early source of information. From this time onward, all articles mention witchcraft (or something similar) and the bestowal of wealth or some other such objective. Vicky Ntetema of the BBC (later to join UTSS) says that this is the “first time that albinos have been targeted in ritual killings” although this turns out to be incorrect according to sources that were not available at the time (such as the 2007 Human Rights Report, noted above).

Only a few months after the issue of attacks on albinos first attracts the attention of the media, the President of Tanzania orders a “crackdown on witchdoctors who use body parts from albinos in magic potions to bring people good luck or fortune”. The certainty with which witchdoctors (also miners and fishermen) are targeted, and equal certainty about magic potions which bring good luck or fortune, suggests that there may be a lot of information about these attacks that is not so easily available online; unless press reports themselves are considered to be reliable. But this is only a preliminary study. There are likely to be many parts of the puzzle that are either unavailable online or difficult to locate. (In early 2009, the government launched another initiative: “citizens will be invited to write down on slips of paper the names of those they suspect of involvement”, dubbed ‘witch naming‘ by the BBC and a ‘secret vote‘ by Reuters.)

By this time, early 2008, it is common currency (in the media) that demand for magic potions comes from people engaged in mining and fishing (for example, in the article citing the president, linked to in the previous paragraph). The number of albino people murdered is now put at 19 or more in the last year. Reference is made to a ‘growing trade in body parts’ in several articles and hints have been made about large sums of money; exact sums of money have not yet been mentioned. The BBC names a victim for the first time in late July 2008 and in the same month refers to an undercover investigation by one of their own journalists which reveals that and albino body part costs about $2,000. This figure and similar amounts crop up frequently in future articles, but it is often unclear whether it is what the ‘client’ pays, what the ‘witchdoctor’ pays those procuring the body part, etc.

Several commentators note that these vicious attacks on albinos started fairly recently (contrary to the claims of UTSS and others that they have been going on “since time beyond memory“). An article in September 2008 says the phenomenon arose some time in the last 10 years. There are several reports of similar attacks in Burundi but it is claimed that the bodies/body parts are destined for Tanzania. Peter Ash, founder of UTSS, told the Vancouver Sun newspaper in a recent interview that the practice of killing albinos had only begun in the last decade, and “the killing of albinos and trafficking in body parts appears to be centered … in and around the city of Mwanza.” This statement is made in an article about the killing of two albino children in Swaziland, and claims that the attacks are ‘spreading’.

There are two reports of people trying to ‘sell’ an albino. One man is said to have tried to sell his wife for $3,000 to ‘businessmen’ from DRC. Another attempted to ‘sell’ his friend for $250,000, but it turned out to be a sting operation by the police and he was arrested and imprisoned for human trafficking. Over the years there have also been mentions of shoes made of the skin of albino people, the drinking of the blood of albino people (referred to as ‘cannibalism’) and the belief that having sexual intercourse with an albino woman will cure AIDS.

The exact phrase ‘luck in love, life and business’ crops up at least nine times in the literature; it is just one of many instances of the use of copy and paste journalism. One might wonder with some of the stories if we are looking at copycat incidents, copycat journalism, or a combination?

Several commentators make the prediction that numbers of attacks on albino people will increase in the run up to the elections (in 2010) because superstitious politicians will be consulting witchdoctors for potions to improve their chances of winning a seat. This prediction appears to have been incorrect, unless those making it were too modest to note their prescience after the elections.

Perhaps there were already signs that the media was tiring of attacks on albino people in Tanzania as early as mid-2010, when their rough (very rough) count of deaths had reached 71 and never really went any higher, despite there being 8 documented victims in that year and 11 the year before. The number of articles halved in 2010 and would halve again in 2011 (and again in 2012), even though the number of documented victims rose to 11 in 2011. Two out of the three articles in 2012 were about albino models and there have only been four in 2013.

There have been 9 documented attacks on albino people in Tanzania this year, including at least 2 killings (although one of those killed may not have been an albino person). So maybe the media will renew its (obsessive, bordering on pathological) interest in these attacks? Or maybe they will not; after all, the mere fact that someone has been killed under bizarre circumstances is not always enough for the media to take an interest; just as, perhaps, the appearance of a bizarre incident in the media may not be an indication that the incident ever occurred, or that its description bears any resemblance to anything that ever occurred, anywhere?

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