Project topics

Ritual killings

The hypervisibility of people with albinism is the source of many cultural myths and superstitions in Zambia. One of the most common is that people with albinism are not human beings but ghosts (mwavi) who bring curses and misfortune to the family.
Since 2015, Zambia has faced an increasing number of abductions, mutilations and ritual killings of people with albinism, in most cases defenceless children. Their body parts are used for making magical objects that are supposed to provide their owners with wealth, power or prestige. While these murders are most often committed by family members of the victims while still in Zambia, body parts are smuggled through organised crime networks into neighbouring countries – Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique. The largest number of ritual killings of albinos occur in the Eastern Province, the poorest region of Zambia. The victims of the attacks, if they manage to escape, continue to live in permanent fear for their lives, as the perpetrators are not prosecuted or sentenced in the vast majority of cases. After an attack, children are placed in state orphanages, where they receive temporary protection, they are removed from their natural family environment and have to cut off contact with their parents and siblings.

Most affected families live at or below the extreme poverty line. They cannot afford to provide education for their children because safety and health care must understandably take priority. People with albinism face enormous health risks due to the lack of medication and protective equipment. Skin and eye cancer is the most common cause of their premature deaths. Albinos in Zambia live to an average age of only 40 years, 22 years less than the national average. Families also lack the means to afford school supplies, school uniforms or even just the dioptric glasses necessary for reading and writing at school. Yet education is the ticket to a better future, without the daily fear for one’s survival.

Vunerable children

Living with albinism in Zambia is a huge challenge. Thousands of children with albinism grow up in an atmosphere of fear, rejection, and contempt. They face a range of challenges including complicated family backgrounds, living in poverty, limited access to education, experiencing social stigma, bullying at school, social exclusion, and isolation. The more fortunate, who have received love and support from their families, are better able to cope with life’s difficult challenges. The less fortunate, either rejected by their families or survivors of ritual attacks, live in state orphanages without a clear future. However, the most serious problem remains the lack of protection of their right to life. Children with albinism (and their mothers) live in constant fear of being persecuted, abducted, ritually mutilated, or even murdered. Unfortunately, their fears are more than justified as 80 % of all ritual attacks in Zambia are committed against children.

Problematic motherhood

Being a mother of a child with albinism, or a mother with albinism, brings many challenges to the lives of women and children in Zambia today. Mothers must deal with social stigma and exclusion, both within their families and in the wider community. The widespread belief that a child with albinism is the result of infidelity or the source of a family curse often leads to the mother (and child) being rejected by her husband. Being a single mother of a child with albinism is often associated with the risk of living in poverty. Due to their continued marginalisation and discrimination, these mothers occupy the lowest socio-economic level in Zambia. In rural areas, particularly in Eastern Province, the majority of them live on the extreme poverty line, which in turn increases the vulnerability of their children to ritual attacks. Abandoned by their husbands and family members, these women do not have many options. They can either rely on their own network of kinship solidarity or try to remarry. Those who fail to do either fall into the trap of illegal prostitution. Single mothers are usually unable to work full-time because they bear a disproportionate burden of childcare, including accompanying their children to school to ensure their safety. Remarriage as a solution is not easy because of the stigma attached to being the mother of a child with albinism. It is also not safe for the kid itself, who is at risk of being ritually attacked or abused by new family members.

Holy albinos in Benin

Benin is a cradle of the traditional religion of Vodun (voodoo), which has been the country’s official religion since the 1990s, along with Christianity and Islam. The Fon and other ethnic groups living in southern and central Benin worship hundreds of different deities (vodun). One of these is Segbo-Lissa, the creator of all people, including people with albinism. These are generally regarded as sacred persons with extraordinary spiritual power derived from the creator deity. Publicly known as Lissa, they represent the materialisation of this deity on earth. Unlike in Zambia, where people with albinism are publicly stigmatised, persecuted, ritually murdered and mutilated, those from Benin are socially integrated through traditional religion. Practice of vodun not only offers them protection from danger (both spiritual and physical), but also the fulfilment of their life’s destiny. In southern Benin it is believed that people with albinism, and therefore the deity Lissa whom they represent, bring prosperity, health, material wealth and spiritual protection. Unlike their counterparts in Zambia, who live on the margins of society in constant fear for their lives. Holy albinos of Benin live in peace, fully aware of the uniqueness that comes from their special status in Beninese society. As vodun- magic can be used for both good and bad purposes, depending on the intentions of the spiritual specialist using it, there are also sporadic reports of people with albinism being used for ritual purposes, especially in the South West Province of Benin. This is usually associated with black magic voodoo called Hennessy.