Of immoral economies, attacks on albinos

There has been a proliferation of cases of injustices and discrimination against people with albinism in Malawi that are linked to ritual practices and beliefs related to witchcraft.

Violent attacks, murders and abductions have led to questions about how individuals with albinism are valued in this country.

Many of these cases have received significant media profiles and on February 17 2019,  The Nation reported that 25 murders have been confirmed since November 2014.

Despite heightened and detailed reports by the media, calls for a response and a wide worry by citizens, the government is not doing enough.

These murders and abductions are a symptom of a failing post-colonial State and a response to contemporary economic needs more than they are  a remnant of customary practices and perceived ignorance.

Rumours about body parts of albinos being imbued with magical properties that bring luck and afford economic possibilities, is the genesis of this violence.

The body parts are traded and allegedly used by witchdoctors in magic potions that are believed to bring fortune.

The effects of the failings of a capitalist society are leading to moral degradation as a result of uncertain political and economic circumstances.

Historically, Malawians have valued life regardless of differences in terms of social standing, skin colour and ethnic affiliation.

I am not underlying the prevalence of witchcraft nor the remnants and continuation of customary practices that in the past led to the killing of people born with albinism. 

Granted, more work needs to be done to improve understanding of the manifestation of the genetic condition at community and national levels. 

What I want to highlight is that investigating these murders in postcolonial settings is pointing to how this is a result of economic forces and this best explains their persistence.

 It is not that people with albinism are being targeted because they are different based on their condition, but rather it is about how this difference promises quick access to wealth and modernity to the perpetrators that would otherwise be provided through formal forms of employment—something that the perpetrators are excluded from.

 The nation has to ask who has the right to take a life? It is this dark side of humanity spurred by economic frustrations that is influencing these acts and it will take more than political calculation—I say this in light of comments made by aspirants of the upcoming tripartite elections—to prevent future events and the moral implications of allowing such rampant perceptions and associated violence to continue.

As a visual anthropologist, I have come across photographs and case studies of research on albinism in Malawi conducted over a hundred years ago by a colonial medical officer named Dr. Hugh Stannus.

In a 1913 scientific paper, he provides genealogical records of 13 families with a history of albinism showing that culturally albinos were not stigmatised.

If any killings occurred (though rare) it was at birth and according to custom. In fact, Stannus cites one case where three children were killed at birth and the fourth child survived due to an intervention by a progressive chief.

In this light, the current events relating to albino murders are a combination of economic forces and questions around the meaning of life.

To best combat this discrimination, the response that is needed has to take into account the entire social, economic and political spheres through which this discrimination is occurring. 

I believe it is the duty of everyone, most importantly cultural leaders and the media to mobilise and defend the rights of all persons with albinism towards a peaceful future and positive contributions to society. n

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