Choosing to Unsee:
How Government Apathy Has Normalized Violence against Africans with Albinism
I dread opening the email entitled “Updates re Attacks on PWA” each time I receive it. It means another African with albinism has been senselessly kidnapped, raped, attacked or killed again. At best, it means the grave of a deceased person with albinism has been desecrated, again. The ever-growing .pdf of reported attacks starts with sobering figures- “Killings 209. Attacks 380. Total: 589 Countries: 30.” With each new human rights violation, I wonder if African government officials are paying any attention.
Violence and prejudice is a normal part of existing for persons with albinism in many African countries.This year has unloosed a wave of brutality, and policy makers with jurisdiction over the most affected regions seem painfully distracted. Government inertia demonstrates that the lives of persons with albinism still do not matter to those who have pledged to protect them.
As a woman with albinism who is conditioned to be loyal to my Zimbabwean and African citizenship, I’m doubtful that the continent’s leaders care to honor their end of the social contract. The problem is, erasing us from memory and policy won’t stop the violence. Blind-spotting us, failing to protect us, and maintaining the culture of impunity for attackers indirectly endorses the toxic belief that persons with albinism are worth more dead, than alive. With no radical cross-border interventions, the trade in albinotic body parts in Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa and Swaziland simply carries on. In fact, evidence suggests that election cycles stimulate a rise in demand.
In the lead up to national polls in May, candidates in Malawi used recent attacks on citizens with albinism to recruit more voters. Yassin Phiri was brutally murdered in front oh his son, at his home in Northern Malawi on New Years Eve. Newspapers across the country reported the story, and soon enough, finger-pointing between political parties over who was responsible eclipsed updates of the investigation. The case became yesterday’s news, until March, when a 14 year old boy was abducted and killed. Shortly before his body was found, and after 3 reported abductions since January, Malawi’s Homeland Security minister commented that attacks were not yet at “crisis levels”. In protest, the Malawi Association of People with Albinism led a mass demonstration and 3 day vigil outside State House, demanding to meet the president. Their desperate efforts did little to revert political attention back to the unnecessary brutality, its root causes, and its damaging consequences. But inversely responding to the urgency of survival for albinotic lives is common in Malawi. The court system currently has 152 pending cases, where persons with albinism are victims.
At the beginning of the year, 10 children, most of whom are believed to have albinism (exactly how many is unclear), were reportedly found dead and mutilated in a shallow grave in Njombe district, southwest Tanzania. Alongside this horror, 7 year old Alphonce Paul George was displaced once more, after assailants tried to kidnap him for the third time in his young life. The shelters commissioned by Tanzania’s government in 2009, following a wave of attacks that uprooted hundreds, are still heavily under-resourced. Survivors like Alphonce have a roof over their heads, and a guard at the door, but these sparse, temporary safe havens do not provide schooling for displaced children, and cannot slowly reintegrate them with society. Bare-bones intervention may have been justifiable in 2009, but 10 years later Tanzania still does not have an official albinism protection strategy. Today, non governmental organizations and private donors still do more than the government to help traumatized, and sometimes mutilated survivors. There are no recent updates on the cases of the murdered children.
Vulnerable citizens deserve to be protected by their governments from violations against their basic human rights. All member states of the United Nations formalized this principle in 2005, when they signed the Responsibility to Protect; a commitment to defend civilians from crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. In 2000, the African Union’s Constitutive Act already gave African governments a mandate to intervene in the face of similar atrocities. Yet 19 years on, people like me continue to suffer unseen, and undefended.
Violence targeting any people-group breeds more violence when governments choose to be passive bystanders. The skeletal social welfare system developed around persons with albinism by NGO’s in some African countries is finite in its scope, and stretched thin. When it collapses, who will count our bodies?