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BONES | Persecution of Albinism in Malawi.

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Under the blazing East African sun reside a hundred thousand people with albinism.

Their existence is defined by distinct physical challenges like visual impairment and an increased potential to develop skin cancer.

What is worse however, is the crude myth that the bones of a person suffering from albinism contain healing properties to be used by traditional healers and witches, and have the ability to increase wealth and influence.

Persecution of Albinism in Malawi photo by Lior Sperandeo

This old myth has led to their violent persecution, isolation and stigmatization from society. In some instances, witchdoctors use their organs for 'medicinal purposes' which are then sold at tremendous prices.

When I first heard about these stories, I had a hard time believing it.

How could scenarios such as these play out in our contemporary world?

Maybe these stories are being taken out of context?

A wave of violent attacks have now taken place across African countries including Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and more.

But today, in Malawi, the condition is more common than anywhere in the world.

These stories - though terrible - had piqued my curiosity, and I had to know for myself if they were true. I had the unique opportunity to get an inside look at this troubling phenomenon, meeting those who have been attacked, and survived to tell their heartbreaking stories.

A shout for justice must be heard.

Lior Sperandeo advocating for Albinism rights in Africa


But first, what is Albinism?

Albinism is a genetically inherited condition, characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair or eyes.

The absence of melanin pigment, which is believed to protect skin cells from UVB radiation damage, can lead to a variety of serious complications including sunburn, deficiencies in vision, and sometimes even skin cancer.

There is no known cure for this absence of melanin that is central to albinism.

With no natural protection from the sun, people with albinism in rural East Africa have no choice but to hide behind closed doors. Sunglasses and sunscreen - basic products for us - are rare, and difficult to access.

In recent years, the media has covered the wave of albinism related attacks in East African countries with headlines that paint spooky stories of kidnappings and murders.

However, being born with albinism in East Africa can be a death sentence without even taking into consideration the social stigma that soon follows.

My experience was different.

I spent ten days running around Malawi attempting to document the myth.

I found no wizards nor bones, but many brave people who had survived terrible assaults because of their condition.

I met victims of superstition who are heroes of an everyday struggle; their enemy not only human nature but nature itself.

People with Albinism in Africa photo by Lior Sperandeo

It starts with the sun.

Individuals of sub-Saharan heritage, with albinism, are a thousand times more at risk of developing skin cancer than the general population.

Since people with albinism do not have protective melanin, they need to take extra care of their skin in the sun. They are urged to apply sunscreen, and to wear sunglasses with a hat.

But these precautions can get incredibly costly and limited for people living in rural Africa.

Persecution of Albinism in Malawi photo by Lior Sperandeo