EIGHT months ago the UN hired an independent expert, Ikponwosa Ero, to monitor and track human rights abuses against people living with albinism.
In her first report, which was released a week ago to the human rights council of the UN, she described a surge in attacks on people with albinism who are being hunted for witchcraft rituals. Their body parts had been hacked off with machetes, and there are even cases where their graves have been desecrated.
She noted that since taking on the assignment, there had been reports of 40 attacks across seven countries, but that this represents just a fraction of the total as most are secretive rituals in rural areas that are never reported. And, as if it couldn’t get any more disturbing, some of these attacks even involved the victims’ own family members.
A big driver in the family’s complicity is down to money. Reported prices range from $2,000 for a limb to $75,000 for a “complete set” or corpse.
Driven by superstition
While those that visit the witch doctor are driven by superstition, believing the witch doctors are able to use the body parts in potions to bring good fortune to those who are willing to pay for it, civil society reports indicate that “family members and communities have sold, or attempted to sell, persons with albinism, thereby fuelling the supply side of this macabre trade.
The prices also indicate the involvement of wealthy individuals as they stand in sharp contrast to the average annual income per capita reported in the affected regions.”
These wealthy individuals are just one group of people who drive and support the superstition business in Africa.
Another group are those that capitalise on superstition by selling the wares and amulets needed for ritual practices, offerings or spells. In parts of Togo and Benin in particular, entire market places – such as the Marché des Féticheurs – are dedicated to talismans, dolls and concoctions. A small simple potion usually costs between $5 – $10.
Then there are those that capitalise on the persecution of witches. In Ghana for instance there are at least six “witch camps” which in total house about 1,000 women.
One of these witch camps is Gambaga where women are given protection by the local chieftain – the Gambarrana – and in return, pay him and work in his fields. The Gambarrana however is also the person who decides whether a woman is a witch – and therefore stays or goes – through “powers vested in him by his ancestors”. There are also records that certain male witches had been able to leave the camps after “giving the Gambarrana the sheep and money necessary to leave.”
But those that capitalise on superstition the most are the self-proclaimed witchdoctors themselves.
Contrary to popular belief, they don’t always operate in underdeveloped areas, away from prying eyes. They are also clearly visible within Africa’s modernising sprawling cities where flyers and wooden signs stuck on electricity poles or walls tell of a healer that can solve a myriad of problems and ailments.
Their advice, counsel and treatments don’t come cheaply. In Nairobi for example a consultation with amganga or kamuti can set you back about 6,000ksh ($60) – although there could always be requests for money to purchase “special spiritual materials” which could cost anything.
And, like in the case of the persecution of individuals with albinism, witchdoctors can get dark and very expensive. This happens especially in situations of desperation.
Up to 200 million Africans – one in every five people on the continent – will in their lifetime suffer from mental disorders, yet governments continue to chronically underfund treatment, with less than 1% of already small health budgets channelled towards such illnesses.
In most parts of the continent, people’s attitudes towards mental illness are still strongly influenced by traditional beliefs in supernatural causes and remedies making them easy targets – particularly when they have no alternatives.
Ethiopia and Somalia cases
Traditional healers and religious leaders provide a significant proportion of the care received by the mentally ill.
For example, in Ethiopia about 85% of emotionally disturbed people were estimated to seek help from traditional healers because there were only 10 psychiatrists for the population of 61 million.
The extent to which these healers will milk the individual or family can be extreme.
In Somalia, for example, a known quack in recent years made it his mission to treat the mentally ill, including through the use of hyenas, which some in the country believe can see everything including the evil spirits thought responsible for mental illnesses.
Families would pay the man about $560 to have their relative locked in a room overnight with the animal. By clawing and biting at the patient, the hyena is thought to force the evil spirit out.
Many have been known to die during the process.