are on high alert after four were found murdered this fall. Two were lynched in the northwest lakes area of Mwanza, and, in the northern city of Arusha, an 18-month-old girl was strangled to death by her father, a teacher at a Baptist primary school. The country’s Albino Society is accusing the government, which has yet to officially condemn the murders, of turning a blind eye to the brutality; one Tanzanian newspaper estimates that the number of victims is five times the reported figure.
Albinism, a genetic condition whereby people are born with little or no pigment in their skin, hair or eyes (which often appear red), affects a quarter of a million Tanzanians. Across sub-Saharan Africa the condition has, for centuries, been viewed as a curse or a bad omen; some believe albinos, who are susceptible to disfiguring skin cancers and nearsightedness, to be sadistic, or to have evil powers. Meanwhile, some witch doctors believe that parts of albinos’ bodies, when mixed with a potion, can make people rich. In the past, elderly women with red eyes have been killed after being accused of witchcraft, and newborn albinos have sometimes been killed shortly after birth, but this is the first time that albinos have been systematically targeted.
“Witch murders are rarely, if ever, punished,” says University of California at Berkeley economist Edward Miguel, who believes that economic conditions are the key to understanding them.
Since the ’60s, these crimes have increased in western Tanzania as well as in parts of Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda— particularly in the poorest areas. There, families struggle for resources, and babies born handicapped or female, as well as the elderly or the sick, are targeted because they’re viewed as burdens. Indeed, Miguel found that “witch” murders doubled in the six-month “hungry season,” between February and July, and dropped immediately after the harvest ended. People use witchcraft, he says, to make sense of their arbitrary misfortunes. M
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