A series of horrific murders and mutilations in Africa over the past two years has led a Canadian businessman, Peter Ash, to form a foundation called "Under the Same Sun." The Africans Mr. Ash is helping are afflicted with albinism (a rare genetic disorder that leaves the skin, hair, and eyes without pigment), but the real threat is not the disease but instead belief in magic.
Many Americans only think of witches and witchcraft around Halloween, perhaps conjuring images of warted old crones in pointy hats cackling as they ride broomsticks. But in many countries belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered part of everyday life. In Africa, witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing (or removing) magic curses or bringing luck-much like many psychics and fortunetellers in America.
In the East African countries of Tanzania and Burundi, at least fifty albinos were murdered for their body parts last year, according to a recent Red Cross report titled "Through Albino Eyes." An albino's arms, fingers, genitals, ears, and blood are highly prized on the black market, believed to bestow magical powers. In November 2009, four people were arrested and sentenced to death in northern Tanzania for killing an albino man to harvest his body parts. A month earlier, albino hunters beheaded a ten-year-old boy and hacked off his leg.
In a continent of dark-skinned Africans, albinos especially stand out and are often the subject of fear, hatred, and ridicule. The lack of skin pigment also makes them vulnerable to sunburn and skin cancer. The Red Cross report notes that "thousands of albinos across a huge swathe of countryside ... are unable to move freely to trade, study or cultivate fields for fear of albino hunters."
The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti. Muti hunting was featured in the 2009 South African science-fiction film District 9, in which the hero's body parts were sought after by a local warlord who believed that the limbs would give him magical powers. 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. Many of the albinos were beheaded, their heads carefully collected and preserved as gruesome good luck charms or for use in rituals.
According to Ash "An individual limb is worth around $2,000 to $3,000. So when you consider the average income in Tanzania is about $800 a year, you can see why someone would want to go after a marginalized person who is seen as a curse and do the village and family a favor by killing and dismembering them."
Some suspects have been arrested for carrying out the albino murders, though so far the persons who commissioned the killings (or offered huge sums for human body parts) have yet to be brought to justice. Some believe that police, politicians, and judges are hesitant to pursue the criminals because belief in witchcraft and muti is so widespread. The Red Cross report claims that up to 10,000 African albinos live in hiding, fearful of being attacked for their body parts. This horrible murder and mutilation of innocent people is a powerful reminder of the dangers of believing in magic and witchcraft.