A couple of years ago when I was an exchange student at the University of Dar es Salaam, I ended up visiting Tanzania’s DNA laboratory (don’t ask). While at the lab, I was taken on a meandering tour of the facilities by the director, Gloria Machube. Just when I was beginning to wish that I could flag a daladala and leave, she began to explain how the lab used DNA samples in witchcraft cases. Whoa!
Ms. Machube had my undivided attention as she led me to a benign looking outbuilding. The smell of decay and formaldehyde hit me in the face as she opened the door. My curiosity was stronger than my gag reflex, and I walked inside. The cramped room was packed with floor-to-ceiling shelving units, filled with packages wrapped in brown paper. Disconcertingly, there were large jars lining a countertop, that seemed to hold body parts. The director confirmed my suspicions, and explained that all of the packages and jars contained human remains from witchcraft cases.
Ms. Machube went on to talk about the problem of witchcraft-related killings in Tanzania, and described some of the cases she had worked on. They were all horrific, but there was one in particular that continues to linger in my memory. It was the case of a man who had been skinned while he was still alive. His face was embalmed in one of the jars. The BBC had visited the lab some time before, and had done a story on that particular case. Their report actually included a picture of that victim.
I was thinking about all of this today because of a separate story posted by the BBC. Happily, Tanzania’s president has nominated Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer as the country’s first albino MP. Ms. Kway-Geer will work to tackle the persistent problem of discrimination against albinos.
Known as “zeru,” Tanzania’s albino population (estimated at 150,000) has suffered immensely. There is a widespread belief that albinos are cursed, and the BBC article notes that 20 people with the condition have been killed in the past year. Some albinos are murdered for their body parts, which are used by witch doctors to create medicines or potions. Fortunately there has been a recent crackdown on witch doctors who encourage such killings.
So what are Ms. Kway-Geer’s plans for reigning in discrimination and hate crimes against albinos?
First we must find out how many albinos there are all over Tanzania, so that they get education and health. Many albinos are poor, and therefore they need help from the government.
In addition to conducting a census, and providing healthcare, Ms. Kway-Geer hopes to educate the public about albinism to help end discrimination and killings.