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In Tanzania, albinos are hunted for charms

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UNITED NATIONS | It is easy to pick out Al-Shaymaa Kwegyir in a photograph of Tanzanian lawmakers. She's the one whose radiant smile beams out from a face so ghostly pale that it makes everyone around her seem darker.

Ms. Kwegyir is an albino, affected by a rare genetic condition in which the skin and hair lack pigment. She was appointed to parliament last year by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and put in charge of the government's newly created office for albino affairs.

The job is not ceremonial: At least 50 Tanzanian albinos were killed or mutilated in 2008, according to a report by the International Red Cross.

"I have heard much of these killings," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a recent trip to Tanzania. "It is a very serious issue and I am very sad to hear what is happening."

He pledged that the world body would support Tanzanian initiatives to halt human rights violations.

Most attacks on albinos are motivated by a brisk but illegal market for magical charms and potions made with albino limbs, organs, blood or skin. The talismans are thought to bring wealth and good fortune to the wearer in many African cultures where superstition trumps science and witchcraft readily overpowers religious faith.

Ms. Kwegyir lamented that many Tanzanians are not going to churches or mosques. "They just believe in witchcraft," she said in a magazine interview. "They don't believe in God."

Salif Keita, a popular West African singer, has set up two Web sites and foundations to provide basic aid to Mali people with albinism.

"La Difference," his album released in early November, addresses Mr. Keita's albinism for the first time.

"People have to break away from stereotypes about magical powers," said Coumba Makalou, Mr. Keita's wife and business partner.

Albinism is caused by a genetic defect that interferes with the body's production of melanin, the pigment that darkens and protects the skin, hair and eyes from exposure to the sun.

In Africa - where white skin is a novelty and brilliant sun a constant, ominous presence -- skin cancer is a major cause of death for albinos.

Private charities working in Africa say basic protection is as simple as a long-sleeved shirt and broad-brimmed hat, along with a tube of sunblock. They also suggest varied work schedules to avoid exposure to bright sunlight.

Superstition presents a more difficult challenge.

The demand for albino body parts is so strong in some parts of Africa that families are sealing their burial plots with heavy rocks or concrete to deter body snatchers who prowl the cemeteries at night.

These robbers dig up whole bodies or just hack off the limbs and features for their customers -- often witch doctors who make charms for clients who believe the tonic or bones will bring good business and great wealth.

Analysts and human rights advocates say that protection is the key to more normal lives for African albinos.

Dorms and boarding schools offer safe havens so albino students don't have to worry about being snatched on their way home after classes.

Families often hide their albino children inside their homes or walled-off gardens. Authorities say such concealment makes it nearly impossible to estimate how many albino children there are and where they live.

"It is impossible even to estimate the number of albinos who have been displaced," the Red Cross report said. "What is certain is that thousands - probably the overwhelming majority of the total population of albinos ... are not able to move around freely to work, study or tend vegetable plots."

Indeed, most albinos "lead very difficult lives," according to a World Health Organization briefing. In many countries, they are still considered less than human - more comparable to myths and ghosts than a sentient human being."

The Red Cross report commends tiny Burundi for rounding up albinos into "secure urban locations" anchored with 24-hour military protection.

Although the body parts of albinos are sought as good omens, the albinos themselves are routinely blamed for poverty, sickness and drought -- and punished accordingly. In some areas, families may be forced to sell or give away albino children before they can bring bad luck to the village.

After decades of ignoring its albinos, the Tanzanian government in 2008 sent a stern message to law enforcement and citizens, saying the torture and killing of an albino would be prosecuted in the same way as any other murder.

Despite several arrests, no one has been convicted. By July, court cases and investigations had been officially suspended for "lack of funds."

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