5 facts about albinism in Malawi

The killing of people with albinism in Malawi made global headlines in early 2016. Here are five facts to help you make sense of the story behind them.

1. Albinism is an inherited skin condition.

Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that prevents the body from making enough colour, or melanin, to protect the skin from the sun. It affects 1 in 5,000 to 15,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. This is higher than in North America and Europe where, says the NGO Under the Same Sun, albinism affects 1 in 20,000 people. About 7,000 to 10,000 people live with albinism in Malawi.

“I know why my skin is white: because that’s how God created me. I don’t feel any different but some of my friends discriminate against me.” – Annie Alfred, age 11

2. People with albinism experience serious discrimination and other abuses of their human rights. 

People with albinism often face deep-seated discrimination. As a result, they do not have the same opportunities for education and health care as others. This unequal treatment is fuelled by superstition and mistaken beliefs. In Malawi, some think that people with albinism have magic in their bones that could make others rich. Many will pay huge sums for their body parts, allowing a gruesome trade in human bones to flourish. It is a trade driven by the growing demand for these body parts in southern and eastern Africa. The UN noted that from 2000 to 2013 it had received 200 reports of ritual attacks on people with albinism across 15 countries – all in Africa.

“My cousin’s child was called a ghost, which they thought was bringing bad luck to the school. She dropped out of school as a result. My cousin was afraid to go to the school to complain. She has six other children with albinism.” – A woman speaking to Amnesty in February 2016

3. Harmful beliefs about people with albinism persist across Malawi – and are at the root of the violence directed against them.

Many people believe that albinism is contagious – it isn’t. They think that the bones of those with albinism contain gold, and they will kill, or rob graves, for them. Others believe that albinism is caused by infidelity, or that it’s a punishment from the gods. Among the many insults directed at people with this skin condition are: “ghost”, “gold” and “money”.

“People tell me they will sell me. Someone said I was worth K6 million (US$10,000). I felt pained that a price tag can be put on me.” – A man with albinism, February 2016

Harrison Mokoshoni (right) lays his hand on his twin brother’s grave. In February 2016, 9-year-old Harry was abducted from his home. Days later, his head was found in a neighbouring village; 10 men were arrested and charged with his murder. © LAWILINK/Amnesty International
Most people who attack [people with albinism] are close relatives.”
A woman, speaking to Amnesty in February 2016

4. Those who attack people with albinism range from criminals to family members.

Those living with albinism in Malawi have very few safe places to go. Spurred by the high prices paid for body parts, criminal gangs will hunt people with albinism down. Family members, too, collude in or even instigate these sorts of attacks. In January 2016, the mutilated body of Eunice Phiri, aged 53, was found in Kasungu National Park, Zambia. Police said that she had been tricked by her own brother and two other men. They took her on a trip through the national park, where they killed and dismembered her.

“Most people who attack [people with albinism] are close relatives...I met one mother in Chitipa who was hiding her children out of fear.  As a result, the children were not going to school.” – A woman, speaking to Amnesty in February 2016

 5. Albinism-related attacks have shot up since 2014.

Attacks on people with albinism have surged in Malawi in recent years. At least 18 people have been killed and five others have gone missing since November 2014. In 2015, there were 45 reports of actual or attempted murder and abduction. Thousands of people – especially children – are living in fear, reluctant to go to school or anywhere else because they could be abducted and killed. In April 2016 alone, four people with albinism were murdered. Among them were a teenage boy and a baby girl. Whitney Chilumpha, aged just under 2 years old, was snatched from her home while she was sleeping with her mother. Pieces of her skull, some teeth and clothing were found days later on a nearby hill.

The Malawian government must protect the lives of people with albinism. It can start by properly resourcing the police so that they can tackle these crimes effectively. Take action today. 

Annie Alfred (centre) and her best friend (to Annie’s left) with their peers. © LAWILINK/Amnesty International
When I see people with white skin I am hurt because of the things that are happening these days. I want people to stop killing people with albinism because we are staying in fear, afraid to go to school or to play with friends.
Annie Alfred, aged 11