By Richard Chirombo:
It took two days, or so, for the message that he was now an orphan, and that such a state has its own anxieties, to sink in.
Not long after, the alarm of sadness replaced the air of happiness that permeated the relationship between George and his 60-year-old father Yasin Phiri, the person with albinism who was attacked and literally torn to pieces on December 31 2018.
He had no option but to resign into the comfort of silence.
It is not the sort of silence one would associate with peace of mind; his was a troubled silence. It is possible that he wished he could meet his father’s killers and strung them from the nearest tree.
Today, even when in the company of others, he finds some time to look right, left and centre— the peculiar look that is typical of those who are afraid and ready to jump out of their own skin.
It has not been easy for George, Phiri’s nine-year-old son, who has experienced what a nine-year-old should not see in a life-time.
“I saw one of the two men who had broken into our house through a window stab my father in the stomach several times. One of them actually beat me up when I started asking questions,” he says.
Lost in a maze of questions in the so-called Warm Heart of Africa, he decided to find answers in silence.
For two weeks, not even well-trained counsellors could soften George’s heart with their tried and tested gentle words.
“This boy [George] was not psychologically okay due to trauma.
“In fact, for 10 days, he did not open his mouth. He did not speak to anyone at the safe school we posted him,” says Cecilia Chazama, Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Minister.
George is not the only blood-relation of a victimised person with albinism who has seen the worst and decided to keep quiet.
Just this month, Goodson Makanjira, a 14-year-old boy with albinism from Dedza District, was abducted and is feared dead.
His mother, Esnart, and sister, Faith Fanizo— who is also a person with albinism— escaped by a whisker after hiding in a maize field.
Faith Fanizo might have escaped physical harm but the soft, albeit painful, harm that is psychological trauma continues to haunt her.
“She did not speak for some time,” Chazama says.
Today, she speaks— but something is wrong with her.
“She [Faith Fanizo] is still receiving psycho-social support and has been moved to a safe place,” Chazama says.
The development has, understandably, irked Association of People with Albinism (Apam) President Overstone Kondowe, who says people with albinism have become “hunted, like animals, in their own country”, adding that even the government is literally playing with the lives of Apam members by not funding the four-year National Plan of Action on Persons with Albinism.
“We are talking of about 153 attacks on people with albinism, out of which 25 have been fatal, since 2014. Remember, over 11 people with albinism are reported missing. We are not safe in this country, hence our calls for asylum,” Kondowe says.
So precarious is the situation that, in February, Apam Deputy General Secretary Ian Simbota attended prayers organised to save the skin of people with albinism in Blantyre.
Overseer of organisers of the prayers, Miracle Ministries International Overseer, Bishop Trevor Kautsire, feels that some dark forces are at play, fuelling cases of attacks on persons with albinism.
“We have heard that, when our brothers and sisters are killed, their body parts are used in rituals. When we talk of rituals, we talk about spiritual things and that is when the church should come into play. Law enforcers can do their part but, to a certain extent, we need prayers,” he says.
Simbota concurs with the man-of-the-collar, saying there is no hope in Malawi for people with albinism.
“If we are to talk of local options, the country must stand strong in prayer because we are against people who are strategic; they know what they are doing and have a straight-forward plan, which is to kill us. Empty press releases and social media talk by the authorities won’t help. Prayer is the last resort,” he says.
What else can he say when 17,563,749 people– according to the National Statistical Office‘s 2018 Population and Housing Census preliminary results – are up-in-arms against 15,000 people with albinism?
Kondowe estimates that Apam’s membership is 15,000-strong but fears that, “with 25 people with albinism killed for their body parts since 2014, we are at risk of extermination”.
However, Chazama— who is fresh from the Ministry of Homeland Security and must be privy to factors that fuel attacks on persons with albinism— says the solution is not spiritual; it is physical.
“We have noted that attackers are taking advantage of the housing conditions of most of their victims to attack them. That is why we are building houses for people with albinism,” she says.
The minister says the government has adopted a multi-sectoral approach to stem the tide of attacks.
She cites the development of the National Plan of Action on Persons with Albinism, which requires funds amounting to K3.1 billion for implementation, as well as efforts to establish population sizes of persons with albinism to help local councils know where persons with albinism live in order to put in place proper security measures.
“We have also engaged the National Statistical Office for inclusion of issues of disability in the 2018 Population and Housing Census, as it is expected that the final report will have disaggregated data of persons with disability. Through this initiative, the population of persons with albinism will be known.
“The ministry is further following up with district councils, the Malawi Police Service and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on all the cases that have recently occurred to make sure that there is progress and for justice to prevail. In addition, the ministry has asked the Judiciary and police to work more closely for effective arrest and prosecution of registered cases. The ministry would like to ensure that there is justice,” she says.
She adds that the office of the DPP— in conjunction with the Judiciary and the Malawi Police Services— has come up with a list of five trial-ready cases that will be tried in the courts up to March 8 2019.
In addition, she says, cases which have not been tried have been identified and action will be taken by stakeholders from March 11 2019.
“Further, as you may be aware, all albinism-related cases are handled by professional magistrates to the High Court to ensure proper prosecution and sentencing. The Ministry of Justice appointed a desk officer who is working in their office to fast-track cases of attacks on persons with albinism.
“The Ministry of Education is placing learners with albinism in schools with boarding facilities, especially learners that stopped or are failing to go to school for fear of being attacked. As at now, 43 students with albinism have been placed in boarding secondary schools. Further to this, the Ministry of Education has directed authorities in boarding schools to accommodate students with albinism when the need arises,” Chazama says.
Homeland Security Minister, Nicholas Dausi, adds that police officers will continue to provide security to such schools to ensure safety of the learners.
But Ken Williams Mhango, whose organisation— African Network for the Prevention of, and Protection Against, Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN)-Malawi Chapter— is implementing the four-year Albino Rights to Health, Education and Protection from Abuse Project, says it will take more than words to stop attacks on persons with albinism.
“It will take mindset change, starting from government officials, who are yet to fund the National Plan of Action on Persons with Albinism, to relatives who are betraying their brothers and sisters to realise that no one can get reach by using body tissues of people with albinism.
“Actually, we have observed that some people do not want to marry people with albinism, yet albinism is not a curse. It is just a condition where the body has little or no ability to produce colour of the skin, hair and eyes due to lack of melanin.
“A man or woman with albinism is just like any other man or woman living in Malawi. True love does not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or even skin colour,” says Mhango, who is ANPPCAN-Malawi Chapter National Director.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has suggested that government officials could have a hand in the attacks, giving President Peter Mutharika seven days to respond to the accusations.
In a letter dated February 27 2019— signed by HRDC Chairperson Timothy Mtambo and regional chairpersons— civil society organisations (CSOs) say the government is paying little attention to the issues.
However, presidential spokesperson, Mgeme Kalilani, accuses the CSO leaders of focusing on character assassination instead of joining hands with people of albinism and those of good will to stem cases of the attacks.
Even Mutharika seems clueless, as he has promised K5 million reward to informants.
However, while stakeholders are coming together to address the problem of attacks, divisions have become the order of the day among people with albinism
Just on February 27 this year, some people with albinism formed a splinter group, Poor and Concerned People with Albinism (PACPWA), headed by Chairperson Francis Masambuka and Secretary General Ellen Khonje.
It has chided Apam— which has rebuffed the government’s call for a roundtable twice— for snubbing the government, pledging to do what Apam was supposed to do.
“We positively respond to calls by the Head of State, the government, all interested and well-meaning groups for engagement,” The PACPWA leaders say in a statement.
But Kondowe chooses to differ.
“We are tired of any kind of discussions since 2014 with State House. We don’t think meetings are good for us. We need action.
“Masambuka has been the chair of Apam, manning the Blantyre office, until last week when he and others chose to form their own organisation to be speaking against Apam,” Kondowe says, an allegation Masambuka dismisses.
As Faith Fanizo continues to get psycho-social support in a safe house, those she looks up to for comfort have chosen to focus on personal issues. Just that, in their case, there is no time to waste because they face a common enemy: faceless attackers.