Today, Malawi joins the world community in commemorating the International Albinism Awareness Day, but with each citizen, including President Peter Mutharika, feeling more ashamed than ever for the merciless killings, abductions and other atrocities against people with albinism.
While other countries are busy advertising their tourism sites on the international stage, Malawi has earned bad publicity for brutally killing 19 people with albinism, and recording more than 65 cases of albino abductions since the end of 2014.
In the past 12 months, shameful and disgraceful stories have made headlines both in the local and international media, detailing how a few heartless ‘lunatics’ are making people with albinism feel displaced and the failure by Lilongwe to end the atrocities.
Atrocities have left scars
Last September, 11-year-old Morton Mkandawire from Mwambuli Village in Karonga survived prevailing ritual killings. Born on December 5 2003, he scarcely feels at home in what is supposed to be the safest space for him.
“Banthu mbaheni [people can be cruel],” the Standard Five pupil with albinism speaks of “the evil people” who enticed him to escort them to a nearby village, only to shove him into an isolated bush where they hacked him in a foiled attempt to end his life.
Now he lives with a scar across the neck and the biceps of his right-hand arm which reportedly saved him from being sliced by the attackers’ knife. There seems to be a permanent scar in his heart that he trusts nobody except his parents and siblings.
When journalists visited him last November, he asked his brother Batista, 20: “Who are these people and what are they looking for?”
Such questions have become part of life as the boy feels insecure in the company of visitors. He wants to know who is around him. Simply put, he trusts no one.
His fears are corroborated by an incident in Dedza where 37-year-old Raphael Meketoni was arrested in May this year for threatening to sell his albino nephew so that he can buy a bicycle.
According to Dedza Police Station deputy spokesperson Cassim Manda, in 2012, Meketoni bought a bicycle and it was being used by his brother Tseketsani and his sister Odeta. Some months ago, Tseketsani allegedly sold the bicycle without the knowledge of the owner.
Thereafter, Meketoni went to his sister who has two children with albinism and asked her to surrender one of them so that he can sell him and buy another bicycle.
Who would the two children trust if not their uncle? Sadly, the uncle thinks a bicycle is more important than their lives.
Is Parliament doing enough?
On May 26, legislators failed to debate a petition submitted to the House calling for legislations or motions to end the killings and abductions of people with albinism.
Instead, the House spent a considerable time discussing whether an opposition member of Parliament (MP) had brought to the House evidence of claims of rigging of the 2019 elections.
It was Dedza East MP Juliana Lunguzi (Malawi Congress Party-MCP) who reminded the House that human rights campaigners had petitioned Parliament to act on the killings and abductions of people with albinism, and the matter needed priority.
However, Second Deputy Speaker Clement Chiwaya said the issue could not be discussed because Standing Orders guide when such issues can be brought to the House.
And now, Mulanje South legislator Bon Kalindo (Democratic Progressive Party-DPP) thinks a naked demonstration in the solution. But what would nakedness do to entrenched beliefs that body parts of people with albinism can bring fortunes?
International community reaction
When Ikponwosa Ero, the United Nations (UN) independent expert on the rights of persons with albinism visited Malawi in April this year, she said the atrocities faced by persons with albinism in Malawi render them “an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done”.
More embarrassingly, in the United Kingdom (UK), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a ministerial statement in May expressing concern over reports that there is a rise in human rights violations against persons with albinism in Malawi.
And just last week, Malawi’s image got more battered when global rights watchdog Amnesty International released an 80-page report titled We Are Not Animals to be Hunted or Sold: Violence and Discrimination Against People with Albinism in Malawi. The report, presented to Mutharika, details how people with albinism are suffering in the country.
But since the atrocities began, only two people, 26-year-old Vuto Bizwick and 20-year-old Manuel Robert, got 25 years imprisonment.
The rest have received lesser punishments of even two years.
Unfortunately, National Police spokesperson Nicholas Gondwa admits that investigations on perpetrators of attacks on people with albinism are hitting a snag because suspects do not want to reveal their bosses.
He said: “When we arrest suspects, nobody wants to tell us who sent them. They have chosen to remain quiet and it is frustrating.”
Besides registering albinos, Gondwa says police have also revamped community policing structures so that people with albinism are protected from the grassroots.
For Boniface Massa, president of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi (Apam), today presents an opportunity for Malawi to reflect on its path regarding people with albinism.
He says: “Society must accept that people with albinism are human beings.”
Massa also thinks the Witchcraft Act, which does not recognise witchcraft, is another problem because reports surrounding the killings of people with albinism indicate that the incidents are connected to witchcraft beliefs.
Rights activist Billy Mayaya also believes Malawi’s response is not enough.
“We are merely scratching the surface and not tackling belief systems and the whole area of traditional medicine,” he says.
Meanwhile, chairperson of the Stakeholders Action Group against the killings of people with albinism, Edward Chileka-Banda, has called for the need to reinforce capital punishment.
But Mutharika has on many occasions admitted feeling ashamed by the attacks. He says “we are doing all we can and, believe me, we are doing more than just talking.”
During a meeting with the delegation from Amnesty International recently, Mutharika said he had received 531 letters and 10 000 signatures from people all over the world who are urging Malawi to stay steadfast and do more in halting the attacks against people living with albinism.
Time to learn from Tanzania?
Last year, when cases of albino attacks were on the increase in Tanzania, police moved in to arrest over 200 witchdoctors and traditional healers.
Several schools of thought have been presented on how to deal with the problem, and government must act quickly. As Massa states, today is a day Malawi must reflect and start accepting people with albinism as human beings. ■