MOROGORO, TANZANIA—Richard Costar is worth more dead than alive. Strangers call him “money” or “deal” for the cash they could make by selling his body parts to a witch doctor. On the street he has to be cautious not to travel alone, and even at the age of 22 he feels he must live at home with his uncle, for safety.
Costar is one of the many thousands of Tanzanians born with albinism, in which mutations to genes that normally provide instructions for melanin production leave individuals with little or no natural pigment. The telltale lack of melanin elevates the risk of skin cancer for Costar and others with albinism. But here in this East African country it also leaves him vulnerable to attacks fueled by superstitious beliefs that albinos’ body parts can lead to power and wealth. A rash of more than 100 crimes against individuals with albinism have been reported in the past seven years in Tanzania, according to the Tanzania Albino Society, an advocacy organization.
The United Nations last month issued a report on crimes against people with albinism, noting that in Tanzania alone there had been 72 murders of people with albinism since 2000, only five of which have resulted in successful prosecutions. The report highlighted the challenge of tracing the crimes as well as ferreting out which witch doctors make albino charms and potions and who buys them. In one incident from the report an unidentified individual tried to sell a man with albinism for $250,000. Children’s body parts are particularly prized and can yield thousands of dollars. "Some even believe that the witchcraft ritual is more powerful if the victim screams during the amputation, so body parts are often cut from live victims, especially children,” the U.N. report stated. “The use of children is likely linked to the pursuit of innocence which, it is believed, enhances the potency of the witchcraft ritual.” Children’s physical weakness also makes them vulnerable. Moreover, a widespread belief that individuals with albinism cannot die and that they may just “disappear” contributes to a lack of empathy for the crimes.
The genetic condition occurs rarely globally—only one in 20,000 individuals have albinism—but the numbers are much greater in Tanzania and its neighboring countries. In Tanzania approximately one in 2,000 people are born with albinism. A pigment deficit under the sub-Saharan African sun makes affected individuals particularly vulnerable to sun damage and to skin cancer, a top killer of people with albinism here. Tanzanians with albinism rarely live past age 50.
The condition also leads to poor vision and hearing, subjecting many individuals with albinism to a vicious cycle of poverty. Their skin vulnerability makes farm work (which employs about three quarters of the country) difficult, and their poor eyesight means they often struggle in school.
To make matters worse Tanzania has a chronic shortage of both specialists and resources to treat issues associated with albinism. Eyeglasses remain out of reach for many. Glasses would cost somewhere around 70,000 to 100,000 Tanzanian shillings ($44 to $63), but beyond the cost lies another obstacle: a scarcity of the required lens type, says Shukuru Majlyo, an optometrist with a practice in the city of Iringa. And even with glasses many people still would not have optimal vision, because melanin plays a key role in the development of certain optical nerves.
There is also a worrying shortage of dermatologists in this country of 48 million people, according to Alfred Naburi, a dermatology officer at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC). The official government policy is that people with disabilities can receive care for free—especially crucial when it comes to paying for pricey skin cancer therapy—but in reality that often is not the case, say Naburi and others. Some people may be turned away due to lack of supplies. Moreover, the challenge of getting to distant medical facilities often means people seek care when it is already too late.