PHILADELPHIA – In Tanzania, superstition dictates that people with albinism are both despised as damaged demons and prized for mystical powers.
Deemed to be ghosts, albino children are hunted by shamans, who use their body parts in witchcraft and potions. Their mutilation is thought to bring good luck to the attackers and others who visit witch doctors.
The stories appall:
In March, assailants lopped off the right hand of a 6-year-old boy, Baraka Cosmas Rusambo.
Last year, 16-year-old Pendo Sengerema had her right arm hacked off at the elbow.
In 2010, Kabula Nkalango was 12 when three men wielding machetes broke into her house, sheared off an arm at the shoulder, and ran away with it. She nearly bled to death.
On a recent Wednesday, the damage wrought by such benighted beliefs met the healing power of modern medicine in Philadelphia. Baraka, Sengerema, and Nkalango were among five persecuted albinos from Tanzania who began free treatment for prostheses at Shriners Hospital in North Philadelphia.
The five were brought to America by Global Medical Relief Fund (GMRF), a small, Staten Island, N.Y.-based charity that has a long-standing relationship with Shriners in Philadelphia, which specializes in pediatric orthopedics.
Operating on an annual budget of $450,000 in donations, GMRF arranges visas, travel and for children who have been maimed in war and natural disasters.
Albinism is a genetically inherited condition that affects about 1 in 20,000 people worldwide. It tends to be more common in sub-Saharan Africa, experts say.
Recently the Canadian group Under the Same Sun released a report that documented 147 killings and 229 nonfatal attacks against albinos within 25 African countries since 1998.
UTSS also maintains a guarded safe house in Dar es Salaam, where the children live and are expected to return when their medical treatment in Philadelphia is complete.
The Tanzanian government has cracked down on albino killings, recently arresting 225 unlicensed “healers,” according to the BBC. Last year, the government added the death penalty to the sentences possible for people convicted of attacks on albinos.
Red Cross investigators and other international aid groups say dismembered limbs, genitals, ears, tongues and noses can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa, where anti-albino bias is most prevalent.
GMRF has helped more than 180 children since 1998.
Its founder said she found the children’s plight particularly haunting. “This is sadistic,” Elissa Montanti said. “You weren’t accidentally injured. You didn’t accidentally walk into a cross fire. This was intentionally done. Someone came in and just hacked away. This is — how should I say it? — in a world all its own.”