Nairobi — Thousands of people with albinism in Tanzania and Kenya have left their home villages out of fear of persecution and moved to live in urban areas where they believe they are safer, according to activists defending the rights of albinos.
"Many albinos are [moving] more and more to big cities and escaping their villages," Ernest Kimaya, chairperson of the Tanzania Albino Society, said. "But the Tanzanian government has [made] a big effort to make sure that the killings of albinos are stopped by strengthening the protection of albinos in the villages."
Kimaya, who was speaking on 10 February at a public lecture in Nairobi to raise awareness about albinism, said his society had so far registered 7,124 albinos in Tanzania, of whom 3,580 are female. The actual numbers are, however, believed to be higher.
Albinos are people with a genetically inherited condition caused by the body's inability to produce melanin pigment. This pigment helps the skin protect itself from the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays. Their killings are driven by the false belief that their body parts have a special potency when included in concoctions used in witchcraft.
Most reported killings have occurred in Tanzania, where a "set" including limbs, ears, tongue, nose and genitals sells for thousands of dollars. The meeting heard that persecution of albinos was also common in Kenya. In August, a man was arrested for attempting to sell a Kenyan albino for US$250,000.
"A lot of young people with albinism in Nairobi are uncomfortable about being in certain areas, particularly when it gets dark," Mumbi Ngugi from the Nairobi-based Albinism Foundation of East Africa, said. "We have also been told about threats to people living in rural areas.
"Yesterday, I was informed about a young man with albinism who has had to have security provided as he has been threatened that he would be killed and his organs sold," Ngugi added. "Parents with young children are living in fear as many of the Tanzanian attacks have been against children, and many are afraid that it may spread in Kenya too."
In August, a court in Tanzania sentenced a Kenyan who was trying to sell an albino, to 17 years in jail and a fine of $50,000.
Thousands in hiding
Between 2007 and 2009, at least 10,000 people with albinism in Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi abandoned their villages and went into hiding, according to the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The Nairobi meeting discussed the rights of albinos to security, health care and education - two other reasons for their increased movement into urban areas. "The Kenyan minister for planning promised last year to carry out a census; there is a promise to provide sun screen, and persons with albinism have been included in some programmes targeting persons with disabilities such as the fund for persons with disabilities, but little has been done in the way of providing protection for persons with disabilities," Ngugi said.
She urged the meeting to recommend to policy-makers strategies to meet the health and education needs of albinos, reduce social stigma and educate parents of children living with albinism.
Figures published on 4 February by Under the Same Sun (USS), a Canadian NGO campaigning for the rights and protection of people with albinism, show that 59 albinos have been killed in Tanzania since 2007, while nine were mutilated in brutal machete attacks. In Kenya, at least seven killings were reported, the most recent on 24 December.
Other deaths were reported in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Swaziland and South Africa. However, many attacks and killings of albinos in Africa, according to USS, are not documented or reported.