In 2008, I showed my friend, Marco Methusaleh pictures of Mariamu, a 6 year old Tanzanian with albinism. Now he has graduated with his MA in theology. I supervised his thesis, which theologically responds to the murder of people with albinism. He said that he was motivated by hope that a new phenomenon like this could be more easily rooted out as well as shame as a Sukuma Tanzanian since the killings began and were most frequent in Sukumaland.
Tanzania’s president also mentioned the shame that this brings to Tanzania in his desire to stop the practice. Declarations against it and against neo-traditional, local healer (waganga wa kienyeji) can make a Tanzanian sound more modern and rational.
Responses to Albino Murders
Some of this shame has come from publicity and pressure inside and outside of Tanzania. Peter Ash is a good example. Ash is a former pastor, businessman, and member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC). After an investigative report by a Tanzanian BBC correspondent, Ash connected with her and the leaders of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG). He began “Under The Same Sun” (UTCC).
Founder of Under the Same Sun Peter Ash with Albino child.
Together with many others, this organization works to support people with albinism in Tanzania and advocate for their protection. Every time an albino is killed in Tanzania, one of the 20 Tanzanian staff members goes to investigate. Ash himself goes to meet the family and publicize. They have produced a good video documentary called “White and Black: the slaughter of African Albinos.” I recognized the pictures of Mariamu as her story was told (see my last post, which briefly mentions Mariamu’s story).
In the video, Ash says, “Everyone is created in the image of God. I am one of you, since I am also an albino.” This also signals for white North Americans to identify with victims as it hints at discrimination based on skin color and disability. No one identifies as one of the witches.According to the UTSS position paper on Witchcraft, “UTSS deliberately uses the term “witchdoctor” because the “traditional healers” we are concerned with also practice witchcraft. While nobody can definitively document this, anecdotal wisdom and our own research tell us that most traditional healers also practice various aspects of witchcraft as part of their services.” The “anecdotal wisdom” may be the polemics of Tanzanian Christians against waganga. Using witchdoctor and witchcraft in this way in its media advocacy may contribute to the confusion seen in news articles. It is also a witchcraft accusation itself which does nothing to curb the accusations and persecutions of people as “witches.” In a previous post, I mentioned that those who are persecuted or killed as suspected witches are those with less social capital. These NGOs have created international social capital for the vulnerable.
A Lesson Learned? Advocating for “Witches”
The advocacy work of this organization and many others have produced results: Condemning statements have come from the UN to the American, European and Tanzanian governments. The Tanzanian prime minister angrily called for an end to the killing of albinos with tears in his eyes. Many have been arrested and more than a dozen convicted in the murder of albinos.I praise God that many fewer albinos are being killed … . But why more outrage and shame about killing 75 people with albinism than about killing 7,500 people suspected of being witches?
Since 2010, the regular killing of albinos has ended although there are isolated incidences. UTSS has warned of danger for albinos in this election year as powerful dawa (medicine) is often sought from new-traditional healers (waganga) in order to win elections. Early this year, the Tanzanian government even cracked down on healers. According to a report from New24 earlier this year, many unregistered neo-traditional healers were arrested for doing more than herbal treatment and the unusual items in their possession were used as proof. The efforts do not seem to be reducing belief in the power of these healers, though. According to Marco, they were all let go and the evidence returned because the police feared the healers threats to harm them.
I really rejoice in the significant effort by local and international Christians, non-Christians, governments, and NGOs to protect and provide for people with albinism. I praise God that many fewer albinos are being killed even if the underlying beliefs have changed little. But why more outrage and shame about killing 75 people with albinism than about killing 7,500 people suspected of being witches? Why the difference? Would it be possible to mobilize Christians and non-Christian locally and internationally to curb this killing?
© Steven D. H. Rasmussen