Malawi is offering a reward of $7,000 for any information regarding abductions and attacks on people with albinism. The reward comes ahead of elections after the killing of Yasin Phiri triggered public outcry over government inaction.
Phiri was killed on New Year’s Day in front of his young son. According to local media, his arms were hacked off along with his private parts and his teeth were removed. Albino bones are believed to be made of gold dust and are used as an ingredient in witchcraft.
In rural Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, belief in witchcraft is widespread, and it is commonly believed the body parts of people with albinism can increase an individual’s wealth. The body of a person with albinism can fetch up to $75,000 U.S. on the black market.
Albinism is a genetically inherited disorder that results in the partial absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. The condition is more common in sub-Saharan Africa where 1 in 5,000 people have albinism. Malawi has a population of 16.5 million and an estimated 10,000 of them have albinism.
Human rights groups such as Under the Same Sun have noticed a trend in deaths of people with albinism increasing during elections, noting that the individuals purchasing the potion for good luck tend to be wealthy and educated.
“Every election period brings with it a new cycle of killings,” said Amir Manentoa, a retired judge and human rights activist. “In between we have smaller elections translating to more abductions, more killings.”
“We see an increase of witchcraft and the use of human body parts, particularly albino body parts, in the run-up to the general elections,” said Manentoa, who for decades has been a prominent figure in the campaign for the rights of people living with albinism.
Few arrests have been made against attackers and witchdoctors and not a single buyer has been arrested or convicted. “Police are failing to uncover the syndicate behind the killings. Malawians are wondering why the government is frustrating efforts to deal with the albino killings,” said civil rights group Malawi Human Rights Defenders.
Bonfice Massah, the national coordinator of Association of Persons with albinism in Malawi stated that the government’s refusal to prosecute suspects accused in Albino related crimes has left a persecuted community of 10,000 in fear.
“We face a high risk of attack and we have seen government commitment in words, but not in action,” Massah said in an interview with Southern Times.
Last year in commemoration of International albinism Awareness Day, Malawi announced a national action plan to ensure the security of people with albinism. The plan has an estimated budget of 3.1 billion Malawian kwacha and centers on the safety of people with albinism, support for victims of attack, civic education, community building and raising awareness.
Edge Kanyongolo, an associate professor of law at the University of Malawi, blames the attacks on the failing economy. “The attacks on persons with albinism are a manifestation of a larger problem…people don’t have options to earn money,” Kanyongolo said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “And this then drives them to be so desperate and, as some would say—so irrational—as to think that getting the body parts of a type of person and so on, may make you rich.”
According to the International Labour Organization, two out of every five Malawians of age are unemployed and the currency has dropped by almost 50 percent with inflation more than 20 percent since the collapse of the tobacco market in 2012.
“This witchcraft belief is taking us to a bad place,” said Anas Aremeyaw Anas, an undercover investigator who arrested a witchdoctor responsible for the attack of an 11-year-old boy. “We’re going to kill each other for no reason.”