NAIROBI, Kenya – The mistaken belief that albino body parts have magical powers has driven thousands of Africa's albinos into hiding, fearful of losing their lives and limbs to unscrupulous dealers who can make up to $75,000 selling a complete dismembered set.
Mary Owido, who lacks pigment that gives color to skin, eyes and hair, says she is only comfortable when at work or at home with her husband and children.
"Wherever I go people start talking about me, saying that my legs and hands can fetch a fortune in Tanzania," said Owido, 36, a mother of six. "This kind of talk scares me. I am afraid of going out alone."
Since 2007, 44 albinos have been killed in Tanzania and 14 others have been slain in Burundi, sparking widespread fear among albinos in East Africa.
At least 10,000 have been displaced or gone into hiding since the killings began, according to a report released this week by the International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent societies.
East Africa's latest albino murder happened in Tanzania's Mwanza region in late October, when albino hunters beheaded 10-year-old Gasper Elikana and chopped off his leg, the report said. The killing left Elikana's father, who tried to defend his son, seriously injured.
Albinism is a hereditary condition, but occurs only when both parents have albinism genes. All six of Owido's children have normal skin color.
African albinos endure insults, discrimination and segregation throughout their lives. They also have a high risk of contracting skin cancer in a region where many jobs are outdoors.
Owido, a high school teacher in the western Kenyan town of Ahero, says she was forced to transfer from a better teaching job on the Kenya-Tanzania border town of Isebania in 2008 after an albino girl she knew was murdered and her body parts chopped off.
The surge in the use of albino body parts as good luck charms is a result of "a kind of marketing exercise by witch doctors," the International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent societies said.
The report says the market for albino parts exists mainly in Tanzania, where a complete set of body parts — including all limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose — can sell for $75,000. Wealthy buyers use the parts as talismans to bring them wealth and good fortune.
"Albinism is one of the most unfortunate vulnerabilities," said International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent societies Secretary General Bekele Geleta. "And it needs to be addressed immediately at an international level."
The chairman of the Albino Association of Kenya, Isaac Mwaura, called the murders deplorable but said the killings have given albinos a platform to raise awareness.
Almost 90 percent of albinos living in the region were raised by single mothers, Mwaura said, because the fathers believed their wives were having affairs with white men.
"When I was born my father said his family tree doesn't have such children and left us," Mwaura said.
Some African communities believe that albinos are harbingers of disaster, while others mistakenly think albinos are mentally retarded and discourage their parents from taking them to school, saying it's a waste of money, he said.
Due to a lack of education, many albinos are illiterate and are forced into menial jobs, exposing them to the sun and skin cancer, he said. Those who manage to finish school face discrimination in the work place and are never considered for promotions.
"People are very blind to albinism but it is very visible. Now that we have this issue in Tanzania is when people have started to talk about albinism," Mwaura said. "Before there was a studious silence."
By TOM ODULA, Associated Press Writer