Monthly Archives: January 2009

“Zeru” in the news

While doing laundry today, I noticed an article in the Economist on Tanzania.

Photo Credit: EcoWordly

A horrendous trade: Albinos in East Africa

“Wow, what a find!” I thought, but the article had little to do with economics or politics, and all too much to do with highlighting the tragedy facing a little known East African minority group, the “zeru” (Swahili for ghost), or albinos.

“According to the Tanzania Albino Society, at least 35 albinos were murdered in Tanzania last year to supply witch doctors with limbs, organs and hair for their potions.”

As the article rightly points out, albinos are a threatened minority group, and persecutions for body parts used in witchdoctor potions seem all too common in the country side.  Throughout Kenya and Tanzania, the media have grasped onto the plight of albinos, featuring articles on their butchering and dismembering in BBC, the Nation, various local newspapers, and now the lovely Economist.  It is widely known that albinos are occasionally slaughtered for body part harvesting, a tragedy indeed.  But equally tragic is the treatment and marginalization of the individual, the child, whose unlucky genetics leave him helpless in the brutal tropical sun, and whose playmates shun him as the bizarre outcast.

I had a few chance encounters with albinos in the villages surrounding Ruaha National Park during my fieldwork in the fall.   Near Nyamahana though, one instance is particularily memorable; a young boy sitting alone at the side of the road as the Land Rover passed by.  We had cruised Nyamahana several times over the course of several days, and each time, this boy sat in the shade under a tree, solo, staring at the traffic moving by (a not uncommon village past time, myself included).  We stopped near the tree one time, as Erasto, our driver, engaged in a conversation with a local village enumerator.  Misty, my girlfriend, began asking questions about the boy, obviously sympathetic, as sun blisters covered parts of his face, and arms, his lips serverly chapped looked particularily painful, and his bright eyes were constantly shaded by his hand from the mirrored glint of the sun off of the Rover’s windows.  Misty and I frantically rummaged through our bags for extra sunscreen, too little too late of course, but a sympathetic gesture nonetheless.  With Asha’s help, we brought the sunscreen to the boy, and she explained how to apply it, and that it would help to shield his skin from the sun’s rays, particularily sinister at the end of the dry season.  We drove away, asking questions about the boy, and Erasto informed us that he was the son of the village chairman, well-to-do by village standards, yet due to unfortunate genetics, destined to a childhood of relative solitude and rejection.  A sad fate.  As Erasto and Asha questioned us about albinos, and what caused the condition, we began to learn a bit about local knowledge and beliefs.  To date, I had thought that attacks on albinos happened in the northeastern areas of Tanzania, and was surprised to hear of similar prejudices nearby in the Southern Highlands.

In Iringa, my homebase, I would frequently see an albino student, about 20 years old, walking with a group of friends near the university, his head covered by a leather cowboy hat, longsleeve T-shirt, jeans, and shoes.  He appeared decidedly out of place style-wise, as his collegues dressed in tight jeans and T-shirts, sandals, sun glasses, and he carried himself more like a desperado.  Or maybe it was just the leather hat and weathered white skin in a sea of smooth black faces.  While I, as a foreigner and a white man, often felt the gaze of passerbys on busy streets in town, he seemed similarly guarded, another white face, strange, yet local.  But in his group of friends, he was at ease, smiling, calm, the confidence I felt when I walked with Tanzanian friends, accepted and supported.   The difference between this boy and the village child was merely one of acceptance and support.  A more tolerant university environment versus the prejudice and superstition of the rural village.

From the Economist article: “The head of police in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, this week handed out free mobile phones to several hundred locals with albinism….  Each phone comes with a “hot line” to the police. Albinos text in their location if they suspect they are being tracked by gangsters determined to kill them and harvest their body parts.”

Yikes.  While the Tanzanian government’s distribution of mobile phones to albinos is a welcome policy action, it seems wholly inadequate as a measure to address prejudice and lynchings.  Could you imagine handing out cell phones to African Americans in the South and saying: “Just press this button if you see white sheets and burning crosses on your lawn, we’ll be right there.”  I don’t think it would’ve been effective.  Unfortuneately, it seems that albinos still have a long struggle ahead in East Arica.  First for protection, then for acceptance.  Until then, it appears they’re destined to wait alone by the side of the road, hiding from the sun, hiding from their neighbors, an endangered species (see below)

Albinos declared an engangered species in Tanzania

Unicef Article on a recent killing of an albino girl in Burundi

New York Times Article: Albinos, Long Shunned, Face Threat in Tanzania