Albinos face discrimination in Africa

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Phillip Martin reports on the challenges faced by albinos in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Albinos lack the pigment melanin in their eyes, skin, and hair. It's a genetic defect, but in much of Africa, it's also reason for extreme ? and deadly ? prejudice.

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. Albinos in much of sub-Saharan Africa are in danger. Albinos are people who lack the pigment melanin in their eyes, their skin, and their hair. It's a genetic defect, but in much of Africa, it's also reason for extreme and deadly prejudice. Phillip Martin has been reporting for us about race and color around the world. Today, Phillip has the first of two stories about the growing threat to albinos.

PHILLIP MARTIN: In a musty apartment building in central Madrid, human rights lawyer Javier Ramirez says he's fighting to save a man's life. This past April, 18-year-old Moszy, as he calls himself, was among 60 African refuges that came ashore in the Spanish Canary Islands. But with a face as white as chalk Moszy stands out. He's an albino, a condition that makes life in much of Africa miserable and dangerous. Moszy is locked away in a Spanish immigration detention center, so Javier Ramirez speaks for him.

JAVIER RAMIREZ: Albinos face persecution in terms of the Geneva Convention for Refugees because these people suffer personal persecution.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Ramirez is with the Spanish Commission for Refugees. He says Moszy is seeking political asylum in Spain because albinos face persecution in his native Benin, in West Africa.

JAVIER RAMIREZ: They suffer violence. You know, so they face a huge discrimination in their country for origin. And they suffered persecution not only by a few, but also by the huge majority of the community and the society.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Ramirez says across most of Africa, discrimination against people with albinism runs wide and deep, particularly in under-developed rural areas where people are less educated. Thabo Leshilo is editor of the South African newspaper, The Sowetan, which has reported on human rights abuses against albinos in Southern Africa.

THABO LESHILO: 'Cause there's still a lot of ignorance. People still believe, for example, that people with albinism don't die. That they actually disappear, and don't get buried.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Leshilo says over the past 19 months, these prejudices have taken a deadly turn. In Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya some 60 albinos have been victims of ritualistic murders in which their body parts have been hacked off and sold. The buyers are witch doctors acting on behalf of often wealthy, sometimes educated businessmen seeking to improve their fortunes with so-called albino magic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You bring bones here and an albino's hand.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How will that help?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help?

PHILLIP MARTIN: This is a recording from A BBC investigation last year that exposed the business of killing albinos for their body parts. It found that an arm fetches 800-dollars, and a leg up to a thousand dollars. This conversation voiced over by actors is with a witch doctor in Northern Tanzania. It was secretly recorded by the reporter posing as a businesswoman in search of albino body parts

REPORTER POSING AS BUSINESSWOMAN: What about the albino's hands?

WITCH DOCTOR: We use the potion from that, for your fishing nets.

REPORTER POSING AS BUSINESSWOMAN: What about the legs?

WITCH DOCTOR: The legs will help you in the mining business.

REPORTER POSING AS BUSINESSWOMAN: If I can't bring these body parts can you help? I can't do these things alone because, you know, I'm a woman.

WITCH DOCTOR: There are ways. There are people who can get these body parts for you.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Over the past 19 months, 46 people with albinism have been murdered in Tanzania, 10 in Burundi, and at least one in Kenya. Because traditional healers require body parts from living beings, some victims, as young as 2 months old, have been attacked and hacked to pieces alive. Rick Guidotti, a former New York fashion photographer turned human rights activist, recently traveled to Tanzania to investigate the killings. He fears that the attacks could escalate as economic conditions worsen in East Africa.

RICK GUIDOTTI: When there's an opportunity to feed ten children when you bring the bones of one child with albinism, it's greed but it's also survival. And these children, their lives are threatened, and it's only going to get worse until people stand up and start prosecuting the people that are suspected of these horrifying crimes.

PHILLIP MARTIN: That may finally be happening. Just last week, eight men who were convicted in connection with the murders of albinos in Burundi were sentenced to prison. One was told he will spend the rest of his life behind bars. The sentences were seen as a major victory for albino human rights advocates in Burundi. But so far, despite many arrests, there have been no convictions in neighboring Tanzania. Tanzanian government officials say they are moving as fast as they can, but not fast enough for Peter Ash.

PETER ASH: If I was born in Tanzania, my life would be in danger, because I have exactly the same genetic disorder they do, and I can't sit by and do nothing.

PHILLIP MARTIN: For Peter Ash it's personal. Ash is an albino, who lives in Vancouver. He says he suffered prejudice growing up in Canada, but nothing prepared him for what he encountered in Tanzania. On a recent trip there Ash says young men taunted him with chants of "Deal, deal, let's make a deal!" suggesting they could cash in on his body parts. Now Ash travels with his own security detail to Tanzania, where he says he feels a deep kinship with the country's albinos.

PETER ASH: There was an almost instant connection that I had with the folks there, because I'm not black and I'm not African and I don't speak Swahili, but the fact is they are my people. They are my brothers and sisters because genetically in some ways, they have as much or more in common with me then they do their own people. And I was really gripped by Edmund Burke who said, "All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." And I decided that was not an option for me.

PHILLIP MARTIN: So two years ago Ash founded Under the Same Sun, a Canadian charity to assist Tanzania's albinos, who number nearly 200-thousand out of a population of 40 million people, one of the highest rates of albinism in the world. Bill Oetting, a geneticist at the University of Minnesota, says albinos who escape the body poachers still face the prospect of shorter lives.

BILL OETTING: We have a situation where in Africa being light skin is going to be detrimental from a survival standpoint because you're going to have a higher susceptibility to skin cancer. And many individuals who have albinism within Africa do die early because of untreated skin cancer.

PHILLIP MARTIN: That motivated Peter Ash of Under the Same Sun to donate sunglasses, tanning lotion, and protective clothing for albinos in Tanzania. He's also funding cancer research and human rights monitoring in the country. And he's turned his attention to the albino asylum case in Spain. While there is less information about the fate of albinos in Benin, where Moszy is from, Ash says he takes his claim of persecution seriously.

PETER ASH: I can tell you that through the whole area of Africa, beliefs exist that people with albinism are cursed, that the mother had sex with the white man, that she had sex with a European ghost, that these people are evil, that they're possessed, that they're substandard, that the disease is contagious. There's a host of myths that prevail for hundreds of years around people with albinism in large parts of Africa.

PHILLIP MARTIN: Even so, Spanish human rights advocates face an uphill battle proving that Moszy faces a real and deadly threat of persecution, if returned to Benin. Meanwhile, 10's thousands of other albinos continue to confront deadly prejudice across much of Africa. For the World, I'm Phillip Martin

LISA MULLINS: Tomorrow Phillip Martin examines efforts to generate positive images of albinos worldwide. For example, a group of South African journalists is sponsoring a writing competition.

SOUTH AFRICAN JOURNALIST: This competition is aimed at helping people understand albinism, and also to help in educating in a small way ignorance about albinism in Africa and also in South Africa specifically.

LISA MULLINS: That's coming up tomorrow on The World.