Albinism in Malawi

Malawi Village (Source Needpix)
Albinism in Malawi
According to the UN and Amnesty International, Malawi’s minority population of 10,000 albinos remain at serious risk of human rights violations. Shanique Blake explains the perils suffered by those born with this rare genetic condition.

Each year thousands of albinos, particularly children, are abducted and killed in Malawi for their body parts, which are then made into charms. Albino body parts are part of a lucrative trade, with some fetching up to $75,000 (£60,000), and those captured by albino-hunting gangs are killed immediately, or taken to places of ritual sacrifice, or mutilated. This has resulted in Malawi being cited as one of the most dangerous states in Africa for albinos, and to human rights organisations like Amnesty International campaigning for their protection.  

Attempts to document albino killings only began in late 2014 after activists noticed an increase in attacks in the build-up to Malawi’s general election earlier that year. Since then, the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) has documented 25 murders, 15 disappearances and 122 cases of attempted abductions and the exhumation of albino bodies from graves. 

For the Maulidi family, the constant fear of being captured and killed by these gangs became a reality. A little before midnight on 12th February 2019 five machete-wielding men broke into the hut of Misa Maulidi, the mother to two albino children: fourteen-year-old Goodson and three-year-old Faith. Knowing exactly what the men wanted, Misa had to make the heart-breaking decision to save one of her children. Scooping up Faith, she fled into the bushes leaving Goodson behind, hoping that her son would be saved by family members living in the next hut. However, after a short violent struggle with his relatives, Goodson was dragged off by the men to a waiting car. 

Goodson’s fate remains unknown, and as with most cases of albino abduction, no-one has been brought to trial. In February 2019, the UN expressed concern that the May elections could lead to an upsurge in the torture and murder of albinos, and senior government and opposition figures in Malawi say they themselves have been urged to visit corrupt witchdoctors to purchase albino ‘good luck charms’ when the political winds blow against them. This has left many people believing that politicians are heavily involved in the trade. 

In March 2018 the Malawian President Peter Mutharika issued a statement in condemning a wave of attacks on people with albinism. Prior to this in 2016 a Malawi court banned the practices of ‘traditional healers, sorcerers, spells vendors, magicians and fortune tellers.’ Mutharika has also called on police to arrest perpetrators and protect those with albinism and their families at risk of attack and in May 2019 one perpetrator was sentenced to death for the murder of an albino. However, for Amnesty International and the UN,  prevention is better than reaction, with the former denouncing the death penalty as no solution to the problem, and pointing to a lack of effective policing due to under-resourcing, particularly in Malawi’s remoter rural areas. Amnesty International also point to how families are also frequently hampered by a lack of money needed to bring criminal gangs to the courts.      

Some significant progress has been made by other African states to protect their albino minorities; Tanzania, for example, tried introducing state boarding schools in a bid to safeguard the welfare albino children, but this has often led to their dislocation from family and community life. Tanzania has also introduced serious penalties for perpetrators involved in ritualised murders. Kenya has an elected albino senator and celebrates difference through annual albino beauty pageants.  

In Malawi, however, albinos continue to live in fear, suspicious of everyone who is not immediate family, and wondering if they will be next person to disappear. Give that albinism is nothing more than a rare genetic disorder passed down to them, we can all agree that this is a very cruel fate.