Good News From Africa
The Tanzanian Government has announced measures aimed at stopping the murderous attacks often conducted against people with albinism in the country.
Albinos can be found in most societies: in my part of Ghana, we knew them and called them by the name ofiri. In Tanzania, there are nearly 40,000 Albinos. Many Tanzanians – and indeed people from other parts of East Africa — believe that Albinos are endowed with good luck “by Nature” and so hunt them and either kill them to use their body parts for “medicine” (juju), or maim Albinos, while they are alive, by hacking off their limbs , ears and other parts which they use to prepare magic potions and talismans, which they hope, can bring them good fortune. Some politicians are also said to believe that the use of Albino body parts in occult practices, can help them to win elections. So election time is very dangerous for Albinos in Tanzania, which means they become a very endangered species every five years or so.
The Ghanaian investigative journalist, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, did a harrowing report for Aljazeera TV some time ago, in which he was able to penetrate the mysterious circles of the Albino hunters and get a few of them arrested.
But because many police personnel and the politicians under whom they work believe in the alleged powers of Albino body parts themselves, nothing comes of cases involving the harassment of Albinos that are taken to the law enforcement agencies. In the past three years alone, seventy Albinos have been killed in Tanzania, but only 10 people have been convicted of the murder of Albinos. This has caused an international outcry, and now, the Tanzanian Government has decided to try and eradicate the horrible practice by banning the “witch doctors” who prepare the potions and talismans with body parts hacked off of Albinos. The Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister, Mr Mathias Chikawe, who announced the ban, said there would be a “nationwide operation” to arrest the “witch doctors” and take them to court if they continued to work.
An organisation which works for the protection of Albinos, the Tanzanian Albinism Society, has welcomed the Government’s move. “If we and the government come together and show strength as one and speak as one, we can deal with the problem headon”, the Society said. Mr Chikawe said action to find and prosecute “witch doctors” would begin in two weeks’ time in the northern areas of Mwanza, Geita, Shinyanga, Simiyu and Tabora, where most of the attacks against Albinos have taken place. However, much as I applaud the seriousness with which the Tanzanian Government now seems ready to attack the problem, I think it is going about it the wrong way. The reason is that in Africa, if you “ban” something, you drive it underground. Because of the mistrust of government that was created by the imposition of foreign colonial rule upon African societies, Africans regard governments as a necessary evil that imposes unwelcome measures of people who just want to live their lives in peace – measure like taxes or the criminalisation of gin-brewing and the manufacture of firearms. Africans always find ways of going round such bans, and those who disobey the laws regarding them are actively protected by their societies with a cult of silence that Governments cannot break down. Besides, it is not all those classified as “witch doctors’ by the colonialists, whose derogatory terms our legal machinery continues to employ, fall into the category of superstitious quacks who prey on the minds of the dim-witted and vulnerable members of their societies. Many proficient “herbalists” and what might be called “indigenous para-medical personnel” (for want of a better term) are arbitrarily classified as “witch doctors” alongside the peddlers of superstition. The skills of these indigenous practitioners of medicine will be lost to Africa for ever if a blanket ban is placed on so-called “witch doctors. “
What should be done, instead, is this: the Tanzanian Government should establish district educational units, manned by educationists who know and understand Tanzanian traditional beliefs – people trained in anthropology , psychology and modern medicine but who understand and appreciate African traditional medical practices — to educate the “witch doctors” about the science of albinism. Audio-visual equipment can teach them that albinism is also found in animals such as monkey, rats and rhinos, and that there is therefore “nothing magical” about Albino humans.
If the Tanzanian Government is able, using such methods, to get the “witch doctors” to come on side, then the attacks on the Albinos will die out. On the other hand, if the “witch doctors” are forced to go underground, they will be paid more money for undertaking “Albino hunting”, for their prospective customers will realise that the enterprise has become more ”dangerous”. One only has to remind the Tanzanian Government of how American gangsters were the people who profited most from the criminalisation of the sale of alcohol through the “Prohibition” laws.
Even more relevant is the growth of animal poaching throughout East Africa, although poaching in search of ivory from elephants and tusks from rhinos is a serious offence in the region. A closely-knit network of smugglers has grown in the region, which is able not only to supply animal poachers with sophisticated weapons but also, is able to export ivory and tusks abroad, through corrupting port officials.
These smugglers have cultivated customers in China, Taiwan and other Asian countries, who ensure that the smugglers’ “winnings” in Africa obtain a ready and lucrative market.
Albino human parts may not yet be as prized as elephant tusks or rhino horn, but who knows how far the superstition can spread if given the impetus of the smugglers’ cult?