- Mark P Mostert
- PhD, Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia, United States of America.
- Martha M Weich
- BA Hons BTH; Vicar, United Evangelical Lutheran Church, South Africa.
- MP Mostert & MM Weich ‘Albinism in Africa: A proposed conceptual framework to understand and effectively address a continental crisis’ (2017) 5 African Disability Rights Yearbook 101-117
- Download article in PDF
Across Africa trafficking in albino body parts is far more complicated than might first be assumed, as this activity is merely the end result of a complicated process with origins far removed from the point of sale. The literature in this area tends to focus on either (a) the actual act of procuring and selling body parts; or (b) loosely-related and fairly vague reports of why this process flourishes. There is no extant overarching conceptual framework linking key underlying interrelated vectors that combine to drive severe exploitation of persons with albinism, (for instance, stigma; traditional and other cultural beliefs; the status and impact of authority figures; local, regional and national discrimination; the financial impact and economy of scale in trafficking body parts, and so forth). The absence of such a framework directly hinders proposing or implementing effective solutions, as these solutions are unlikely to succeed if they ignore the highly-symbiotic relationships among the undergirding vectors. Therefore, we propose an initial conceptual framework that unpacks crucial connections among related variables impacting trafficking in albino body parts in Africa, and then use the framework to suggest areas of emphasis to reduce and eliminate the trafficking of these body parts in Africa.
Trafficking in human body parts is a persistent, intractable international problem and is a direct response to the ever-growing need for transplantable organs worldwide. However, there is an even more sinister set of circumstances in Africa: The trafficking in body parts of Africans with albinism for use as magical charms and in magical potions, in several countries, has reached crisis proportions.
Exact statistics of albino killings, maimings and abductions are not currently available. However, these practices are likely to occur across most of the continent. A recent report indicated that in 25 African countries, there had been 185 killings and 297 survived attacks. African countries known to be involved in the trafficking of albino parts include Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa and Swaziland. Further isolated reports of killings and attacks have come from Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Swaziland.1
Irinnews2 recently reported that from early 2015 to May 2016 ritual killings of persons with albinism escalated in Malawi with 17 cases documented along with 66 abductions and other albinism-related crimes. The purpose of the murders and abductions was to sell body parts to witchdoctors and other practitioners of traditional medicine.
For example, a teenager with albinism watching a soccer match was abducted and later found dead without his hands and feet, which were allegedly sold to a dealer in Mozambique. Elsewhere, a 30 year-old woman was murdered, her breasts and eyes removed.3
In Kenya, there have been at least 75 murders of children and adults with albinism since 2000. There is little information on murder and abduction attempts, but they are fairly widespread, especially in rural parts of the country. For example, in September 2015 three men attacked a 56 year-old home owner demanding money. When the victim refused, the attackers suggested they cut off a hand or ear to sell in neighbouring Tanzania.4 The victim was cut deeply several times around his ear and his arms before the assailants fled. Officials suggested that such attacks were a direct result of the government’s crackdown on albino hunters in neighbouring Tanzania.5
While Burundi is home to several thousand Africans with albinism, trafficking in body parts has until recently been fairly contained. However, as trafficking has increased in neighbouring Tanzania, and with the Tanzanian government’s subsequent action to eradicate albino hunters, attacks are escalating in Burundi. For example, in 2012 six heavily-armed men attacked a group of children in their home. One child was kidnapped and later found dead without her arms and legs. There have been other reports of albino bodies being disinterred and mutilated. The last 10 years have seen 21 murders of persons with albinism; another 13 survived attacks; and several graves have been robbed of corpses of persons with albinism.6
While it is likely that trafficking in body parts occurs in many places across the continent, there is little doubt that ‘ground zero’ for the crisis is Tanzania. The current spate of killings began in October 2006, in and around the city of Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria, a region with the highest per capita number of witchdoctors in the country.
By 2008, the Tanzanian government responded in several high profile ways, including appointing a woman with albinism to the national parliament, banning all traditional healers and witchdoctors from practising their trade, and declaring the killing of persons with albinism a capital crime. Between 2006 and June 2016, there were 76 killings, 69 attack survivors, one abduction survivor, 17 grave robberies, and two failed grave robbery attempts.7
Given these scenarios, there is a need to understand how to ameliorate the problem. As a starting point, we suggest an explicit framework of contributing and intervention factors that impact persons with albinism from their immediate context through more distanced contexts and which merit attention if the trafficking crisis is to be effectively addressed.
What is currently available in the extant literature related to the plight of persons with albinism can be divided into contributing and intervention factors. Contributing factors are those that impact and shape the lives of persons with disabilities in a negative way. Intervention factors are those that seek to positively address the negative contributing factors.8 These factors are addressed below as part of a nested set of systems that lay out the proximity of these factors to any person with albinism.
Both contributing and intervention factors can occur in the immediate context of persons with albinism, or be further distanced from where they live their lives. However, whether in close proximity or further away, these factors are interrelated and nested to form a complex conglomerate of the world of persons with albinism.
A useful framework to set the contributing and intervention factors in context is provided by Bronfenbrenner.9
Bronfenbrenner describes a series of four distinct yet interrelated ecological settings when studying a subject, in this case persons with albinism and trafficking in body parts. Originally developed for ecological educational research, these settings serve the purpose of defining the space around the topic to be studied and, while these spaces are specific and circumscribed, they are both interrelated and nested the one within the other. These settings are the microsystem; the mesosystem; the exosystem; and the macrosystem.
The microsystem is the immediate setting in which the object of the study, here persons with albinism, resides. This system contains the elemental factors of time, place, activity and role. Settings are defined as the places in which subjects engage in specific activities in specific roles (for instance, roles such as that of parent, teacher, son, daughter, and so forth).
The exosystem is an extension of the mesosystem including wider social entities that influence the microsystem and mesosystem. Examples may include major societal institutions operating at the local/community level, such as the world of work, the neighbourhood, media, government agencies, communication, transport, social networks, and so forth.
This representation makes it clear, according to the extant literature, where concentrations of support and assistance for Africans with albinism reside. In the microsystem, the most immediate of the four contexts, social connections and community issues around persons with albinism are apparently improved by relying on bettering intrapersonal reflections as a means of assimilating persons with albinism among their immediate social systems of family, friends and the immediate community, for example the village. In the next-closest context, the mesosystem, factors negatively contributing to persons with albinism, appear counterbalanced by attention to and the fostering of interpersonal relationships and involving community and other local leaders to reinforce the legitimacy of persons with albinism. At the next contextual locale, the exosystem, broader considerations around persons with albinism, again, mostly negative, are counteracted by the efforts of local organisations and institutions; grassroots outreaches; informal education; socio-economic rehabilitation; and advocacy for and by persons with albinism. Finally, the macrosystem, the farthest context from where persons with albinism reside, seeks to implement national initiatives and legal precedent via governmental strictures, formal education initiatives, and applications of national and international law.
Thus, all current contextual representations are focused on ensuring that persons with albinism are more fully included, respected, and granted their human rights as fully-inclusive members of their societies. Every resource noted above is aimed at combating a host of legitimate problems, but with scant attention to the crisis of kidnapping, killing and body part harvesting of persons with albinism, notwithstanding a very real general awareness about the trafficking crisis.
Below we describe the trafficking problem in terms of an entire trafficking cycle, its topography in relation to persons with albinism, and some basic approaches necessary to ameliorate the trafficking in body parts of persons with albinism in Africa.
The trafficking in body parts of persons with albinism, economically, is a simple matter of supply and demand. If there were no demand for magical charms or potions, or the willingness of customers to pay exorbitant amounts of money for them, there would be little impetus for this grisly trade. However, the demand is very real and drives the trafficking market and its various players in a commercial trafficking cycle that is well established.
Thus, the entire trafficking process begins and ends with customers who demand charms and potions thought to contain magical qualities. Customers approach a witchdoctor who is the key catalyst setting the process in motion. Depending on the customer’s wishes, the witchdoctor will determine the body parts needed for the charm or potion and will then contract the attackers to procure the specific body parts. The attackers, however, need pertinent information about where they might acquire these body parts, that is, the location of persons with albinism. Attackers consult with scouters whose task it is to know where to find a suitable person with albinism and who the sellers are. Sellers are defined as those closest to the albinism victims who provide real-time information about where the victim may be found. Based on this information, the attack on the person with albinism is carried out and the relevant body parts procured. Transporters, who may or may not be the attackers, transfer the body parts to the witchdoctor after dealers have set or negotiated prices with both the transporters and the witchdoctor. Upon delivery to the witchdoctor, the magical charm or potion is manufactured and sold for profit to the customer. We refer to this process as the commercial trafficking cycle, appearing in Figure 3.
Figure 3: The commercial trafficking cycle10
An often overlooked quality of Bronfenbrenner’s nested systems is the obvious implication that, while nested, the systems are also topographically distanced the one for the other and, therefore from the subject being studied (in this case persons with albinism). That is, the closest system to the subject - here persons with albinism - is the microsystem, with the other three systems (meso-, exo- and macrosystems) being further away. It is this quality of proximity that may also be applied to the stakeholders in the commercial trafficking system to unpack contact between players and their distance closer to, or further from, the victim, as shown in Figure 4 as a series of proximity levels. At level 1, there is no contact (NC) between the victim with albinism and the customer and the witchdoctor. At Level 2, there is intermediate contact (IC) between the victim and scouters and sellers, who are immediately in the vicinity of the victim with albinism, the scouter having to know the immediate whereabouts of the person with albinism and the seller being a direct acquaintance of this person. Finally, in terms of proximity, full contact occurs when the assailants physically attack the person with albinism that results in either severe maiming or death as the ordered body parts are procured. Thereafter, proximity recedes in reverse order of that preceding the attack. Transporters of the body parts and dealers who are the middle men setting prices are classified as having intermediate contact seeing that they are in proximity to the person with albinism’s body parts rather than the person with albinism themselves. Finally, to complete the process, the witchdoctors receive the body parts, manufacture what the customer ordered and the transaction is thereby completed. Here, neither party has any actual contact with the person with albinism.
Clearly, this state of affairs calls for immediate action at every level of society. The extant literature, however, as with the contributing and intervention factors discussed earlier, notes actions that are heavily weighted toward the protection of, and advocacy for, persons with albinism in the face of organ trafficking issues. These may also be placed within Bronfenbrenner’s nested systems and are amalgamated from suggestions in the literature. 11
At the level of the microsystem, the immediate setting, literature suggestions centre on how to protect, assist and provide advocacy for persons with albinism. At the level of the mesosystem, a related set of settings, the literature suggests that law enforcement entities have the capacity to detect organ trafficking, and that awareness of organ trafficking across the community be operationalised. At the level of the exosystem, the settings where social structures and institutions reside, suggestions include optimising co-operation among all entities involved in combating trafficking; the strengthening of local and national justice systems and jurisdictions; collecting and analysing data related to trafficking; and strategic advocacy efforts at the level of state institutions. Finally, at the level of the macrosystem, which encompasses cultural and other national institutions, the literature calls for co-operation between countries to eradicate trafficking; the application of international pressure; and the call for special rights for persons with albinism under national and international law.
What is clear is that these efforts, no doubt well intended, are scattered, often unrelated, and nowhere near as substantial and interconnected as they need to be to start making a difference to the lives of persons with albinism whose lives are threatened because of the procurement and trafficking of their organs. Here the question is ‘What are the forces needed to detect and destroy the commercial trafficking cycle in albino body parts?’
While victim protection/assistance and self-advocacy are no doubt helpful, they are not sufficient at the level of the microsystem. We suggest that other vectors be considered, as summarised in Figure 5.
First, protection cannot be left to the local authorities that might be understaffed, perhaps corrupt and, perhaps because of negative perceptions, could be unco-operative in protecting persons with albinism. A culture of value, understanding, empathy and tolerance for persons with albinism must be established so that those closest to these persons are resolute in protecting them. Furthermore, strengthening these ties will make it more likely that potential perpetrators will be identified and reported to the authorities, thereby lessening the chances of an attack. Generally, in most African settings, the local community is much more immediate and invested in curbing crime, and of doing so proactively, than local law enforcement officials who, by definition, are almost always reactive. Second, knowing that a particular location is hostile to potential perpetrators may establish ‘safe zones’ where persons with albinism will at least be somewhat assured that there are places where they are less likely to be harmed.
In relation to the discussion directly above, it stands to reason that the greater the positive co-operation between citizens and law enforcement at any level, but especially at the local level, is crucial to deflecting perpetrators who will be more likely to know that such co-operation may lead to their apprehension. This co-operation, however, assumes that citizens trust law enforcement personnel and can be assured that their efforts will be dealt with efficiently and in the best interests of persons with albinism. It also assumes that law enforcement officers have received appropriate training about the plight of persons with albinism and are able to model tolerant behaviour to these persons within their jurisdiction.
Here the issue of raising awareness is not only related to ignorance about persons with albinism, but specifically about the issue of albino organ trafficking. Generally, raising awareness is a herculean task given opposing societal, cultural and economic forces, and is perhaps much more of a challenge related to persons with albinism and organ harvesting. Awareness of the trafficking issue may be an even larger challenge given that it does not occur everywhere and, by its nature, is secretive. Concerted awareness campaigns would be needed to make every citizen aware of the trafficking issue and how to be alert for signs of possible collusion and attacks in their communities. In this day and age of electronic media, we suggest that there are a myriad of opportunities for advocacy efforts to be much more effective than in the past.
Co-operation between citizens and authorities at the local level is only the beginning of the huge challenge faced in getting everyone on the same page of the playbook. Law enforcement, the legal system, the community, political, local and regional leaders, and so forth, must all be able to interact in the best interests of persons with albinism generally in relation to the commercial trafficking cycle in particular. Given the enormity of this task, is it incumbent on governments to first acknowledge the challenges faced by their citizens with albinism, and then similarly in relation to the procurement and trafficking issue. This, undoubtedly, creates huge challenges for all concerned but it is crucial if the procurement and trafficking crisis is to be acknowledged, let alone effectively addressed.
As noted elsewhere, while every African justice system contains legal and other statutes related to maiming, abduction and trafficking, this is no guarantee that any crimes perpetrated against persons with albinism are automatically addressed. In this regard, there are arguments to be made that along with the overall strengthening of legal statutes protecting persons with albinism, law makers might be well served to specifically single out crimes against these persons as a special legal category with concomitantly more severe sanctions. This may take the form of special legal sanctions, such as hate crime legislation.
In any endeavour, it is not possible to address a problem without understanding its cause, extent and sequelae. In this regard, there is virtually no data available anywhere in Africa or the extant literature delineating the extent, depth and ramifications of the albino organ procurement and trafficking crisis. Without this data, any and all attempts at solving the problem will be weakened by not knowing in comprehensive detail the overall parameters of the crisis. It is not enough to simply understand that there is a commercial trafficking cycle without, for example, understanding the nuances of the cycle’s moving parts, the forces at play influencing the cycle, the extent of the trafficking networks, why networks seem to exist in some places but not others, and so forth.
There is little doubt that as the procurement and trafficking in organs of persons with albinism and others become clearer, it will be obvious that not all trafficking is local, but rather is regional and international. Thus, it will become increasingly necessary for regional and international co-operation to stem the tide and break the cycle. Of necessity, these levels of co-operation involve not only governments but also international agencies that have an interest in ending these crimes. This is a significant challenge for all parties concerned, especially seeing that at this level progress, no matter how co-operative, is usually very slow. Once there is some level of co-operation on the extent of the problem and how it should be addressed, then international pressure can be exerted on those countries that do not co-operate in eradicating these crimes or that are responsible for very slow or non-existent implementation of agreed-upon interventions. Finally, at the international level, there are currently efforts to grant persons with albinism special rights under international law, the aim being that once this is achieved, eradicating the crimes of organ procurement and trafficking will be more effectively addressed.
There is little doubt that the procurement of the organs of persons with albinism involves any number of serious crimes irrespective of the players’ distance from the actual attack and organ procurement. Consequently, judicial punishment is a logical outcome should perpetrators be apprehended. Still, the issue is perhaps not as clear-cut as it should be. While all African countries have statutes that cover murder and kidnapping, and some specifically have statutes addressing organ procurement and trafficking, the intersection of these illegal acts with deep-seated social attitudes and stigma may play a significant part in how these punishments are adjudicated. For example, it is not unreasonable to imagine members of law enforcement or even members of the judicial system perceiving the murder of persons with albinism as less heinous than that of other citizens, with concomitant discrimination in the delivery of verdicts and subsequent punishments. Furthermore, a major issue relates to the actual implementation of the law in this instance. For example, Tanzania, after the recent spate of killings of persons with albinism, instituted the death penalty for certain levels of perpetrators.12 However, effective and efficient implementation of the law has been inconsistent at best for any number of legal, societal and national reasons. Currently, there is very little in the literature to suggest how law enforcement and the conviction of perpetrators can become more fully and consistently implemented country or continent-wide.
Most legal systems recognise that while punishment is a major aspect of the law, there is also the need, where possible, to rehabilitate convicted criminals while they are incarcerated or after they are released. This recognition, however, does not necessarily translate into rehabilitation programmes for offenders. In relation to persons with albinism and organ trafficking, a distinction needs to be made between rehabilitation to integrate offenders back into civil society and rehabilitation of attitudes and perceptions about persons with albinism. General rehabilitation programmes are few and far between in many African countries, and the literature shows no record of rehabilitation attempts related to perpetrators of trafficking in organs of persons with albinism.
While less often acknowledged than judicial punishment and rehabilitation, reconciliation can be an effective tool in mitigating future animus and crime. For example, the Gacaca courts13 established in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, aside from their justice-based applications, contained a significant element related to reconciling victims and perpetrators, especially when both parties continued to live in close proximity to each other. Similar elements were a visible part of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission14 when investigating the many atrocities of apartheid. While full and unconditional reconciliation may not always occur, reconciliation could be a significant vehicle for bridging the gap between perpetrators of albino organ trafficking and the families and loved ones of victims. Again, as with the Rwandan case, victims and perpetrators are likely to reside in close proximity and interact regularly in their communities. We were unable to uncover any reports of reconciliation programmes related to albinism victims and their perpetrators.
The notion of reparations generally seeks to ‘make whole’, however imperfectly, those aggrieved by a crime. In some systems this takes the form of monetary or asset compensation; community service or prominent social statements of regret or acknowledgment; and the perpetrators’ assumption of responsibility for the crime committed.
There is little doubt that the surviving loved ones of murdered persons with albinism suffer a great deal not only over the loss of their loved one, but in knowing how and why the victim was killed. While any form of reparation is hardly adequate to compensate for this horrific state of affairs, it might well go some way to assuaging the psychological and emotional wounds incurred by the crime.
Appropriately, many have noted that albino organ procurement and trafficking is a lucrative business that rewards players at every stage of the commercial trafficking cycle. Typically, this is attached to arguments of poverty and high levels of unemployment, the general idea being that were better economic opportunities available, players would be less likely to engage in trafficking activities. This is problematic on two fronts. First, it is unlikely that in most African countries problems of poverty and unemployment will be solved in the near future and, second, even should employment be close to 100 per cent, it is unlikely that these jobs would be as lucrative as trafficking in albino body parts. On the other hand, however, there is little evidence either that poverty eradication and employment programmes could, even in some small way, mitigate this issue. The simple answer is that the entire set of issues related to how to deal with trafficking in body parts of persons with albinism remains largely unexamined and unaddressed.
First, we noted that there currently exists a significant number of contributing and intervention factors nested within all aspects of African society that seek to address the challenges faced by persons with albinism. While this scenario is far from complete, and while many current interventions may or may not be effective, it is clear that the community of persons with albinism in some countries are being acknowledged and their issues addressed, however imperfectly. Here efforts need to be increased in terms of both intervention focus and efficacy to make the lives of PWA better on all counts. Furthermore, these efforts are significantly uneven. For example, efforts in Tanzania far outstrip efforts elsewhere to address not only the wellbeing of persons with albinism, but also to attempt to curb the commercial trafficking cycle. Not only must efforts continue in Tanzania, but they must be more seriously addressed wherever persons with albinism are found.
Second, we analysed the commercial trafficking cycle and noted the proximity of various players to the victim. It is important to articulate this cycle and proximity issues as a starting point for addressing how, eventually, it might be disrupted and eradicated. The cycle has only recently been articulated, and there is no evidence in the literature that we could find that addresses the cycle in its complexity and influence, let alone speculating on effective solutions. For example, virtually no attention is paid to players other than the attackers. While this focus is on its own terms necessary, it is not sufficient, as it is equally important to consider the entire set of players and how they (significantly) contribute to the procurement of organs of persons with albinism.
Third, we gathered from the literature what prophylactic efforts were available specifically targeting the safety of persons with albinism as potential victims for organ procurement and trafficking and how they were nested in proximity to these persons. What is clear in this regard is that current efforts are piecemeal and scattered; much more ‘Band aid’ solutions to immediate problems than an actual co-ordinated effort that addresses, at least, the albinism side of the trafficking issue. Clearly, the paucity of efforts here is a boon to those profiting from the commercial trafficking cycle in that they are usually able to easily circumvent whatever paltry efforts exist.
In sum, we acknowledge that the very real plight of persons with albinism is beginning to be noticed and addressed, albeit in a piecemeal and somewhat unco-ordinated way, but that at every level, from the person with albinism in an African village to the national and international structures that govern the globe, there is so far no measured, logical, sequenced approach to adequately protect and include Africans with albinism.
1. Under the Same Sun ‘Reported attacks of persons with albinism - Most recent attacks included’ 18 September 2017 http://www.underthesamesun.com/sites/default/files/ Attacks%20of%20PWA%20-%20extended%20version.pdf (accessed 22 September 2017).
2. Irinnews ‘Magic and murder: Albinism in Malawi’ 5 August 2016 https://www.irinnews.org/fr/node/256222 (accessed 22 September 2017).
3. Amnesty International ‘Malawi: Stop ritual murders of people with albinism’ 9 August 2016 https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/stop-albinism-killings-in-malawi/ (accessed 22 September 2017).
4. ‘Attackers in Kenya try to hack off body parts from albino for sale in Tanzania as polls near’ Mail and Guardian 14 September 2015 http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-09-14-attackers-in-kenya-try-to-hack-off-body-parts-from-albino-for-sale-in-tanzania-as-polls-near (accessed 22 September 2017).
5. ‘Kenya's albinos moved away from Tanzania border amid witch doctor threat’ The Telegraph 23 September 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaan dindianocean/kenya/11885641/Kenyans-albinos-moved-away-from-Tanzania-border-amid-witchdoctor-threat.html (accessed 22 September 2017).
10. J Bell ‘Motivated by profit and witchcraft beliefs: East African networks target people with albinism’ 2008 http://www.flinders.edu.au/ehl/fms/law_files/Criminal%20 Justice/Motivated%20by%20profit%20and%20witchcraft%20beliefs_Burke.pdf (accessed 20 September 2016).
13. T Hauschildt ‘Gacaca courts and restorative justice in Rwanda’ 15 July2015 http://www.e-ir.info/2012/07/15/gacaca-courts-and-restorative-justice-in-rwanda/ (accessed 15 September 2017).
14. L McLeod ‘Reconciliation through restorative justice: Analysing South Africa's truth and reconciliation process’ Spring 2015 http://beyondintractability.org/library/reconciliation-through-restorative-justice-analyzing-south-africas-truth-and-reconciliation (accessed 18 September 2017).