Malawi: "We will not rest"

By Sofia Moro

Spanish photojournalist, Sofia Moro, visited Malawi earlier this year, to document the targeting of people with albinism.

The bell rings to herald a class change as we cross the sports fields of Mzuzu International Academy, the only internationally-accredited secondary school in northern Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. In all of the 800 kilometres we have travelled so far, these are the most modern and appropriate facilities we have seen.

Our trip was planned following a visit to Madrid several months ago by Bonface Massah, President of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi (APAM), to denounce an upsurge in their persecution in his country. Knowing that I would be in Malawi not long after, Amnesty International asked me if I could spend three days documenting the situation that Bonface was denouncing.

It is a journey of more than 1500 kilometres from the capital to Chitipa, a small town in the north of the country on the border with Zambia and Tanzania. I was accompanied by Chimwenwe Mungomo, APAM Programme Officer, and Christabel Mvuls, interpreter. Halfway there, we stopped at Mzuzu Academy. The principal, Peter Yates, showed us around the school’s facilities. He is a British national with long experience of teaching in the developing world: “Nigeria, Yemen, Iran...” he lists. “This school has by far the fewest resources, and has been the biggest challenge in my career,” he later confided.

Meeting Morton

We are going to meet one of its 200 students: Morton Juma, a young eleven-year-old boy we would like to interview and photograph. He is easily distinguishable among the group of boys in the P.E. class. There’s no doubting it, Morton has albinism, a genetic disorder characterised by a lack of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. He has a rare case of partial albinism. His skin is light but, rather than the ivory white of most people with albinism, his is a more milky coffee colour. Even so, the risk of skin cancer is high and he has to cover himself in sun cream every day. The genetic disorder also causes him to suffer from sight problems.

– “Mr. Morton. How are you today? Did you put sun cream on this morning?” asks the principal as we approach the group.

– “Yes, Mr. Yates.”

– “Good, I’m pleased to hear that. And where is your cap?”

– “In my room, Mr. Yates.”

Morton smiles sheepishly, knowing that his cap should be protecting his head. Skin sensitivity and sight issues are not the only problems Morton suffers from, however. I recall what Bonface Massah, President of APAM told us during his visit to Madrid. “Attacks on people with albinism have spiked in recent years in Malawi. […] At least 18 people have been murdered and another five have disappeared since November 2014. Over this same period, we have recorded 107 crimes against people with albinism, including attempted kidnappings and the desecration of graves in search of bones”.

“The attacks are driven by the belief that our body parts can be used in witchcraft to bring wealth and cure illness. We have no clear idea of how much such body parts fetch on the market but we know through our partners in Tanzania and from some cases in Malawi that people are promised vast sums of money to obtain them. There are cases in which the accused have stated receiving 40 million Kwacha (50,000 Euro) but we have no way of verifying whether this is true or not.”

"Systematic elimination"

The murders are barbaric. The bodies are abandoned with their arms and legs cut off, their organs ripped out, people persecuted and hunted like animals in the 21st century. Four people with albinism, one of them no more than a toddler, were murdered as recently as April 2016. Whitney Chilumpha was scarcely two years old when she was abducted from her house while sleeping with her mother. Days later, skull fragments and teeth belonging to her were found. It is hardly surprising that Amnesty International has launched an urgent action to draw attention to this cause.

UNHCR has also noted that there is a black market for the body parts of people with albinism in Africa, involving millions of euros and the UN is warning that the estimated 10,000 people with albinism in Malawi are facing “systematic elimination”.

Morton knows very well what is going on and tells us, still fearful, about the events of 2 September 2015. A neighbour who was well known to him, Samson Kaunga, came looking for him at his house on the pretext of accompanying him to collect some chickens for his mother. But Kaunga took Morton to a nearby forest where two accomplices were waiting to kill him.

“Sam Kaumba said: OK lads. You can do your job. One man grabbed me by this arm and the other by this one and they cut me in the neck with a knife.” – “I struggled and someone cut me again on my back; to block him I raised my arm and they cut me here,” describes Morton with an expression of pain as he shows me the scars on his arm and neck.

He was lucky. He managed to escape when someone heard him shouting and came to find out what was going on. The men fled. Morton was urgently taken to his house and from there to the hospital, where he spent almost a month recovering from his serious injuries. The perpetrator of the attempted murder was recently sentenced to life imprisonment. His accomplices have never been found.

 "Our lives remain under threat" 

“We've seen a change in the sentences handed down,” Bonface had told me. “At first, people were getting off with 18 months in prison. Others might end up paying 20,000 Kwacha. Now, through our efforts with the government, some changes have been made to the law and we are beginning to see harsher sentences, which is a real improvement. Despite this, of the hundred and something cases we know about, a great deal of work has to be done by whoever takes the case to court. Few cases have ever been ruled on definitively and, of the 18 murder cases, no-one has yet been convicted conclusively, meaning that as far as people with albinism are concerned, our lives remain under threat while these people are still at large.”

When Kaunga was prosecuted, Morton’s case was taken up by the media. The child’s parents stated that he was living in constant fear, suffering from nightmares and constantly afraid that his life was in danger. He did not want to be left alone or to walk to school for fear of being attacked or abducted again. He had lost faith in everyone. This situation was difficult for his parents, given their limited financial resources. It was then that the principal of Mzuzu Academy stepped in. “We can help him. He has a full scholarship from the school to cover his fees and living costs, and we will be able to educate him and train him to live independently in the future. He feels protected and loved here. He is the only primary-level child boarding with us and everyone looks after him. The progress he has made is incredible although his level is very low compared to the rest of the class. He spent months off school and comes from a much poorer background than his peers. He is not permitted to leave the school, of course, unless accompanied by an adult,” Peter Yates tells us while Morton reads to us with difficulty from a book on the life of the Olympic athlete, Jesse Owens.

“Mr. Morton, these people are from APAM and they have brought you sun cream. Do you think you could share it with me?” jokes the principal. “After all, we have nearly the same skin colour,” he continues, placing his arm next to that of the boy.

“Yes, but I don’t have a watch like that,” answers Morton.

“You see what I mean?” says the principal. “He comes from absolutely nothing and so now is obsessed with everything he sees. He finds it difficult to concentrate and wants to touch everything.”

We leave the school, crossing the sports fields once more. The principal indicates a small wooded area at the far end of the grounds. “This area is protected. Unfortunately they are cutting down hundreds of trees and burning the ground in Malawi. It’s impossible to go more than 10 kms without seeing another fire. Why? Because they have nothing else. Absolutely nothing.”

Back in the car on our way to Chitipa, we see columns of smoke confirming what the school principal told us. We have a boot full of sun cream to distribute through APAM’s offices there. Something that, in a European country, would be available to almost anyone is an impossible luxury for most of Malawi’s population.

A bleak landscape

“One of our objectives is to warn our partners and their families of the health problems they are facing and help prevent them. This is why we distribute these bottles of sun cream,” explains Chimwenwe as we follow the road skirting the edge of Lake Malawi on the way to Chitipa. Six hours more, four by road and two by dirt track, separate us from the house of Lucía Kayinga, in a small hamlet known as Ipenza. We arrive in a bleak landscape. Drought has scorched the earth and the misery afflicting the country is more obvious than ever here. Lucía and her family live in a two-roomed mud hut with a grass roof. Clearly, there is no running water or electricity and your eyes have to become accustomed to the dark as you enter the hut. Their only belongings hang from the walls: two umbrellas, two much-prized plastic bags from Chipiku supermarket, a plastic bowl and some wicker baskets. A poster of former president Joyce Banda and what looks like the wrapping paper from some commercial brand or other covers the walls. Outside, another attached hut houses some chickens and a goat. This is everything.

Lucía Kayinga is 54 years old but looks much older. She has albinism and is poor. Her skin is scorched by the sun. She has no glasses and her eyes are weeping; she is nearly blind. A scarf covers her head. She smiles and introduces us to her family: her husband, her two sons, the wife of her eldest and, always at her side, her sister. Someone brings chairs from a neighbouring house so that we can sit down. They sit on a mat on the ground. Lucía begins to tell us her story, slowly, with long pauses that seem necessary to gain the strength to relive the terror she suffered on 15 July 2015. “It was a Saturday, at two in the morning...” begins Lucía.

The story is not so very different from Morton’s. She and her husband were sleeping. She was woken by cries for help coming from someone near their hut. When her husband went outside to look, a man hit him and left him unconscious on the ground. The assailants were neighbours, they knew that there was only an older woman in the house and so when Lucía looked out to see where her husband was the two men struck her on the chest and dragged her behind the house. “Cut her, quick!” Lucia heard. And, in a second, they had cut off her left hand with a machete. Lucía’s cries raised her husband who chased the men off while she ran to find the police. Halfway there she lost consciousness but, from the ground, managed to alert the officers, who picked her up and took her to the hospital in Chitipa, where she remained for two months until recovered from her serious injuries. It was a miracle she survived.

“I am afraid and don’t dare go out alone. I think these men may return. They live very close by,” concludes Lucía, showing us her mutilated arm. “What’s more, I can’t work in the fields now and I need money for my medicine and trips to hospital.”

"We will not rest"

“It’s a huge challenge,” says Bonface on my return to the capital. “We don’t have the capacity to provide social or economic support to our partners. Not even to the survivors of these attacks, like Lucía or Morton. And there is no government programme of support aimed at helping the victims or preventing attacks. We have managed to make progress in one of our demands this year. Even President Mutharika has publicly condemned the murders and the police have been carrying out some awareness raising activities in the districts where cases have been reported. But we still need more progress in investigating these crimes. We will not rest until there are protection programmes ensuring that people with albinism can live in a society that does not pose a daily threat to us, which accepts our differences and defends our rights.”