Taken as a broad racial category, black people are arguably the most persecuted and oppressed on Earth.* Within their homeland, Africa, they face grinding poverty, ongoing civil wars and conflict, shoddy education, health care and other social services, intertribal rivalries and discrimination, endemic corruption, indifferent governance and brutal dictatorships. Outside of Africa, the large African diaspora deals with racial profiling, lynching, gang violence, a lack of acknowledgement for their contributions to society and culture, and basically the same problems as in Africa, but less acute. But in one peculiar context, white people actually face persecution at the hands of black people.
These “white people” are albinos, who are born with a genetic mutation that imparts much less melanin than normal. (Melanin is the pigments that give skin its color.) All kinds of animals can be albinos, and all kinds of humans too — but for some reason, albinism is most common in East and Southern Africa. Worldwide, it affects about .00005% of the population, but in East Africa, the rate rises to .0004% — 8 times higher. Tanzania is especially associated with albinos, since they represent .0007% there, or 1 out of every 1,500 people. It’s unclear why this region around the Great Lakes of Africa — encompassing Tanzania, Burundi, part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Malawi — has so many albinos, but it could be because of higher rates of inbreeding in local societies, where marrying cousins or other relatives is not considered taboo.
Albinos live hard lives. Melanin is a natural protection against the sun, so having little of it means it’s easy to suffer sunburns and skin cancer. What’s more, melanin helps you see, so albinos suffer from poor eyesight or even blindness. As a result, African albinos have a low life expectancy — only 15% survive past 40. But it’s unclear whether that life expectancy is due only to their physical condition or due to the persecution they suffer.
Humans discriminate against those who look different from them, and in an area with almost uniformly black skin and hair, people with white hair and skin stand out. Albinos in Africa have a hard time making friends and are bullied in school. They are called names — zeru (“ghost”) being the most common, but also nguruwe (“pig”) or just mzungu (“white”). Their own parents often forsake them, since albinism is considered a curse and having an albino around is unlucky. In the worst cases, albino babies are killed; otherwise, they are often separated from the rest of the family, eating outside, drinking from natural water sources instead of wells, and even getting buried outside of cemeteries. This discrimination means they don’t get much of an education. Employers snub them, since ghosts might just disappear after a few days. So albinos are forced to resort to menial labor where they can work apart from others (“pigmented” people). Menial labor tends to take place outside, with the grim result that albinos tend to die in their 20s from skin cancer.
It’s a bad enough situation already, but it gets worse. The belief that albino body parts have special healing powers has gained currency in recent years, allegedly thanks to traditional Tanzanian healers (sometimes known as “witch doctors”). These healers are still popular sources of authority in rural areas, so plenty of people believe them. As a result, albinos are hacked apart, often in surprise break-ins at night. Sometimes the attackers only make off with an arm or a foot; other times, the albinos do not survive. Their family and neighbors may even be in league with the attackers. Albino women may also be raped, since the healers say that sex with them cures HIV. Needless to say, albino body parts are worthless, but since they can sell for huge prices (up to $75,000), there is ample incentive for chopping albinos up — particularly in rural Africa, where most people would never dream of seeing $75,000.
Albinos moan that they are treated like animals. And indeed, there are parallels to the plight of rare African animals. Elephants, rhinos, lions and other majestic African animals are also hunted for their body parts in the belief that they will impart virility or cure various ailments. These horns, claws and tusks sell for thousands of dollars and give poor Africans a strong incentive to poach despite the protection of armed rangers. But Africa’s animals are some of its most recognizable icons and something Africans are generally proud of across the continent; albinos are obscure, despised and treated as freaks and burdens.
But progress is being made. The UN and Amnesty International have publicized the problem and denounced public apathy to albino persecution and slaughter. Foreign albinos from richer countries, like Canada’s Peter Ash, have adopted their cause as something they can relate to. Local albinos, like Josephat Torner (profiled in this RT documentary), travel and give lectures to villages to fight back against the scurrilous rumors against them and just present an example of articulate, educated albinos to people who don’t know any better. They have also had some success in lobbying governments, particularly Tanzania’s, to take the albino problem more seriously.
In Tanzania’s Lake Victoria region, the area with the highest albino concentration, there are now schools (basically orphanages, since parents aren’t usually interested in raising albinos) dedicated to caring for albinos. There are safehouses where albinos can live in peace, and an entire island in Lake Victoria, Ukerewe, that is far enough away from the mainland for albinos to seek refuge from their tormentors. Donations to schools in Tanzania now include things like sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats to help albinos withstand the sun’s glare, magnifying glasses to help them see, and cell phones for them to use in emergencies. Police are cracking down on anti-albino murders, and there is a ban on traditional healers (even though not all of them spread rumors about albino body parts). Some albinos have even managed to succeed despite the oppression: Abdallah Possi is a respected professor of law and a deputy minister in Tanzania’s prime minister’s office; the Tanzania Albinism Collective recorded an album and toured in Britain; Salif Keita, a scion of Malian** royalty, is one of Africa’s most famous singers. If beauty pageants can be considered progress, a Miss Albino pageant was held in Zimbabwe, further south, in March with the aim of fighting against the stigma of albinism and redefining African standards of beauty; more pageants in other countries are planned.
But albinos still face an uphill battle. In Africa, official directives and laws don’t always translate into enforcement on the ground in remote regions. The vast majority of murderers of albinos get away with their crimes; official crime statistics seem suspiciously low given the climate of fear albinos live in. The price of albino body parts is as enticing to police as it is to everyone else, so it’s easy to pay them off. There is a strong likelihood that rich, influential people fuel the body part trade — there aren’t many Africans that can pay $75,000 for an amulet. The price is high enough that the bold will barge into safehouses or sail to Ukerewe, so albinos can’t really let their guard down anywhere. Skin cancer clinics are extremely scarce. The emphasis on Tanzania has come at the expense of other neighboring countries with similar persecution against albinos; in Malawi in particular, where superstitions about witchcraft are prevalent, albinos are almost hunted with impunity.
Albino campaigners are nearly unanimous in their recommendation: better education. Albino body parts do not really cure anything and have not brought fame and fortune to their possessors; if more people knew that, they wouldn’t care about them. Albinos are humans and native Africans just like their neighbors; if more people knew that, they wouldn’t ostracize them. And if scientific explanations for albinism were integrated into the curriculum, there would be more concern for their well-being and less exposure to outdoor activities. Education can’t really eradicate superstition — there are many, many examples of old, discredited beliefs that still circulate even in well-educated countries — but at least it would cut back on the prevalence of the most dangerous and cruel misconceptions about albinism.
The Rohingya are probably the most persecuted specific ethnicity.
Mali is in West Africa.