A toddler named Yohana Bahati was abducted from his home in northern Tanzania on Feb. 14, taken by two men armed with machetes. Police were called and fears were immediately raised because of the child's rare genetic disorder, albinism. The condition results in a lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin, and eyes, giving them poor eyesight and extreme sensitivity to light. It also makes its sufferers a target for magic-related murder.
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Bahati was soon found several kilometers from his home and the worst fears were realized. As a news article in "The Telegraph" described:
"The mutilated body of an albino toddler has been found in Tanzania with his limbs hacked off, the latest such killing for body parts for witchcraft... police finding the body on Tuesday afternoon in a forest area close to his home. ‘His arms and legs were hacked off,' regional police chief Joseph Konyo said. The baby's mother Ester Jonas, aged 30, is in a serious state in (the) hospital with machete cuts to her face and arms after she tried to protect her baby."
This horrific crime highlights the unusual intersection of magic beliefs, African culture, and government. This is only the latest in a series of albino murders. In Tanzania and Burundi, at least 50 albinos have been murdered for their body parts in recent years according to a 2010 Red Cross report. In November 2009, four people were arrested and sentenced to death in northern Tanzania for killing an albino man to harvest his body parts.
Throughout Africa witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing (or removing) magic curses or bringing luck in love or business. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti.
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Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their living victims. According to the United Nations albino body parts can sell for around $600 (or about what the average person earns in one year) in Tanzania.
Muti Magic Earlier this year Tanzanian officials had reportedly banned witch doctors in an effort to prevent further witchcraft-related murders of people with albinism, but magical beliefs are deeply embedded in sub-Saharan cultures. Though the practice of muti specifically is not commonly practiced by witch doctors and traditional healers throughout Africa, it happens often enough (especially in East Africa) that albinos and their families live in constant fear for their lives.
What makes the death of Yohana Bahati especially tragic is his young age (most victims are older children or adults), and also the explanation for why the attacks have been increasing in recent months and may get worse: the use of magic by politicians in Tanzania's upcoming elections to gain an advantage over their rivals.
As bizarre as it may sound to Westerners, the idea of using magic to gain an edge over an opponent - or for success in business or romance - is routine and commonplace throughout Africa. Witch doctors are hired to cast or remove curses, and if you believe that magic affects your daily life - as many Africans do - then obviously those with the most to gain or lose (such as those vying for public office) want the most powerful magic employed on their behalf.
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Unfortunately many believe that albino body parts contain the most potent magic, and this in turn creates a demand and threat to innocent lives based on superstition.
Human body parts - whether from albinos or anyone else - do not, of course, contain magic. But as long as there are those who sincerely believe that they do, Africans afflicted with albinism will continue to be persecuted. Though belief in spells and curses are often thought of as being quaint or benign (perhaps akin to belief in angels or psychics), the fact is that in some cases belief in magic and witchcraft can have very real - and even deadly - consequences.
In addition to steps being taken by the Tanzanian government, other organizations are working to help to help protect Africans with albinism from attacks and persecution including the Red Cross, the United Nations and a Canadian charity established in 2008 called Under The Same Sun.