by Alex Wynter for HDEO, Kabanga, Tanzania
For me one such place was the Kabanga school for the disabled and albino sanctuary on Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, north-east of the town of Kigoma, whose small museum testifies to one of its other claims to fame: it’s where Stanley found Livingstone in 1871.
Getting there is easier than it would have been then, but still not entirely straightforward – it means a long domestic flight from Dar and a drive of more than 100 kilometres on an unmade road. I had a 48-hour gap at the end of a mission to Tanzania to do it in – on the inspired suggestion of my good friend and colleague Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu.
For Kabanga has become a very special place indeed, as one of only two small sanctuaries in the whole of Tanzania for the country’s desperately vulnerable albino population. In remote parts of Tanzania and neighbouring Burundi, albinos are being hacked to death for their body parts – especially legs, breasts, hands and genitals – which are believed to bestow good luck and wealth when carried as charms.
The killers are not, for the most part, thought to be those who actually hold to this superstition, but organized criminal gangs acting as body-part “wholesalers”. So to the extent that the killing of albinos is an organized commercial pursuit on a countrywide level, it has the makings of a genocide.
To date, a largely silent one. Although the BBC’s Karen Allen deserves great credit for having raised the alarm on this story internationally as early as July 2008.
Reliable numbers are few. Only some 4,000 albinos in Tanzania are officially registered as such; the country’s albino association says there are at least 173,000 and some believe the true figure could approach 300,000. Protecting this many people in a developing country bigger than France and Germany put together isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible.
There have been more than 40 reported killings of albinos in Tanzania in the last year and a half, but the true number is probably higher. Of one number, zero, we can be certain: this is the number of successful prosecutions of killers of albinos there have been in either Tanzania or Burundi. Although that may be about to change in both countries with new trials of people accused of albino murders.
I’d been told by Andrei, who’s taken the albino story very much to his heart, that Tanzania Red Cross Society (TRCS) volunteers are deeply involved in the effort to protect albinos and provide services to the Kabanga shelter, which is run by the government. They’re able to do this partly because the international Red Cros operation to support Burundian, Congolese and Rwandan refugees in camps in western Tanzania is winding down.
Until the TRCS provided the school with mosquito nets, beds and mattresses left over from the refugee programme, the new young albino residents – who began arriving in November after the latest killings – were sleeping huddled together on bare concrete.
But the TRCS commitment goes deeper still: many volunteers, so shocked and saddened are they by the albinos’ plight, are contributing out of their own pockets.
When I got to Kabanga I had about three hours of usable daylight left. I found myself sitting cross-legged amid a mixed group of albino and disabled non-albino children, their teachers, and the TRCS volunteers who had organized the evening picnic they were enjoying, taking their pictures and listening to their often horrific stories. Every photojournalist knows the experience of squinting through the viewfinder and fighting back tears. Never have I found that battle harder.
To the volunteers, the albino children – mostly unscathed by the terrible skin cancer likely to blight their adult lives in a land of tropical sun – have a beauty all their own. They are fragile, adorable things. The Tanzanian Red Crossers cannot begin to fathom how anyone can possibly wish to harm them, let alone take a panga to them.
For the TRCS, the albino experience in the Great Lakes region seems to offer a window onto the darkest, grimmest depths of the soul.
I joined one little boy who was sitting calmly next to the towering but very benign figure of the school’s deputy head, Stephen Samuel, who translated his story. Albino hunters had come to his village one day and found him and his black mother in their house. When they tried to seize him she clutched him to her chest with both hands, but one blow from a panga severed her arm and he fell to the floor; the boy got up and ran. The police eventually found him and brought him to Kabanga.
Another albino mother and her black child had only just escaped from their village with their lives after hunters found them too. An athletic-looking 17-year-old albino had once escaped because he screamed so loudly his neighbours rushed to save him; on a second occasion he simply outran what he estimated were 15 attackers, all armed with machetes. And so it went on. Story after story, of killing, mutilation and hair’s-breadth escapes.
I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be the parent of an albino in a remote village in the outback, with nothing more than the goodwill and vigilance of one’s neighbours between your child and death by mutilation. Tried and failed.
The school itself is secure, according to Samuel, guarded by armed Tanzanian police during the hours of darkness. A more pressing problem, simply, is that it’s full. Full to the rafters. The dormitories, one male one female, are so jam-packed that the older children can barely squeeze between the beds. Yet still the police bring in new albino fugitives, effectively refugees – the most recent from about 200 kilometres away, implying a huge catchment area for this one relatively tiny place.
Kabanga also desperately needs a dependable supply of the high-factor sunblock that is the only thing with a chance of preventing these children from developing skin cancer. The TRCS has provided some, but not enough. As every first-world sunseeking tourist knows, it’s very expensive stuff.
And a kitchen: at the moment all the children’s food is cooked on an open fire in one of the yards.
And if they are not to turn people away, a new dormitory.
The Tanzanian government recently said it will fast-track murder trials involving the killing of albinos, and I didn’t meet anyone who doubts that. The TRCS, meanwhile, says it’s determined to expand its work in this area and is appealing for direct and urgent assistance from international donors.
Tanzania as a nation has a well-deserved reputation as a sanctuary for refugees. The people I met there were utterly dismayed that this history should now be overshadowed from within.