Right before I moved to East Africa last July, the New York Times came out with a big article about the surge in albino murders that Tanzania has seen over the last two years.
It was strange that this was the one fact about this country that penetrated the Western media. Tanzania — that far off land of disease, lions, and now, of all things, witchcraft. I follow American news about Tanzania pretty carefully, and few issues here seem to generate headlines like albino murders.
They are a big problem. This New York Times article addressed it just last week:
“At least 40 albinos have been murdered in Tanzania since mid-2007, many of them hacked to death in front of their families, and their legs, breasts, genitals and other parts carried off. In one case, an albino child 9 months old was taken from its mother and killed.
High prices are paid for potions made from albinos because of rumors that they will make the user rich, and fishermen weave albino hair into their nets for luck. More than 90 Tanzanians have been charged with killing albinos or trading in their body parts; 4 were police officers.”
I haven’t heard any firsthand stories about violence towards albinos, but I get the sense that there’s deep superstition associated with them. I’ve been in situations with friends of mine — who would never say they believe in witchcraft — where they’ll cautiously point out an albino person, asking me if I’ve ever seen one before.
In Dar es Salaam, at least, there’s a growing activist backlash. There have been rallies condemning violence against albinos; at the University, where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently for work, there have been teach-ins and events sponsored by human rights groups.
And last week, the government banned traditional healers.
The news made the international media, and it’s been all over the newspapers recently. According to The Citizen, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda said, “These witch doctors are big liars … They are fanning albino killings.”
I agree that the killings are deplorable. But I think banning traditional healers is treating a symptom, not the cause.
I wrote about this briefly at the time, but I had the chance to meet several traditional healers in southern Tanzania last July. It was part of an HIV education program that my organization runs, and it was probably one of the most fascinating experiences I’ll ever have in my life.
In the pictures below, I went to visit a whole traditional hospital in Chikongo, a village in the Mtwara Region. It was a hub of activity in a sleepy town; children played in the dust outside the “wards” and women sold oranges by the gate. The woman in charge of the hospital had a calm, confident demeanor. She seemed to believe she was genuinely helping her patients.
The hospital wards:
Medications in the hospital:
It’s not that I believe the traditional medicine is equal in its effectiveness to Western medicine. In fact, I think I’m on the politically incorrect end of this spectrum — I’ve never had much interest in acupuncture or echinacea pills. Medical interventions should undergo rigorous scientific analysis.
But after spending time getting to know some traditional healers, I can understand why people in rural villages turn to them for help. And if we alienate those doctors, we alienate their patients.
In the picture below, one of my co-workers (on the right) is looking at this traditional doctor’s registration materials. Our meeting with him was pretty incredible.
Yes, he had some terrifying misinformation about HIV. He said that the virus was an animal that had to be chased from the body, and that AIDS could be cured by induced vomiting or laxatives.
My empathetic and tolerant co-worker had a long conversation with this traditional healer. He treated him with respect, but he also explained why his clients needed to get tested for HIV in order to measure whether or not his traditional interventions worked.
The next morning, we saw both him and his patient at the counseling and testing center at the local hospital. It’s no guarantee, but that patient was one step closer to getting the treatment he needed.
As sad as it made me to think that people truly believe HIV is an animal, I can understand why rural patients turn to traditional healers. When the nearest health facility is a 10 hour walk away, down hot deserted roads (or on flooded, impassable roads in the rainy season) — wouldn’t you go to an authoritative figure in your own village?
That’s why we need to work with traditional doctors, not against them. I’ve read several studies that show how healers in a variety of African countries can be powerful allies in distributing mosquito nets, encouraging voluntary HIV testing, identifying malnutrition in children. They are trusted and accessible in ways that Western health professionals often aren’t.
Banning them won’t work. In many of the villages where traditional healers are most prevalent, there isn’t even any electricity, let alone some kind of medical accreditation body that has the teeth to strip them of their authority. If traditional healers are ostracized from the mainstream healthcare system, they’re less likely to cooperate — which may mean that they will continue to disseminate inaccurate health information.
And while the violence against albinos is grotesque, it’s evidence of much bigger problems and injustices in Tanzanian society.
Look at this column by Nicholas Kristof. He cites the research of UC Berkeley economist Edward Miguel, who argues that unpredictable weather — and therefore, unpredictable crops — is directly responsible for increases in witchcraft-related violence.
I don’t know enough about Tanzania’s recent rainfall trends or the history of albino killings to make any kind of authoritative statement, but Miguel’s argument makes sense to me.
This kind of superstitious violence is a symptom of poverty and inequality. Unless we address those issues, banning traditional healers won’t help — and it may even do more harm than good.