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The mysterious market of albino bones

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At around 11 pm on a Thursday night, alias Hadson Shava walked slowly into the graveyard, going straight to one grave and exhumed it.

Wearing a wornout shirt, short and slippers, Shava used the same hoe he uses in his maize garden for this mission.

He remembers his braveness and determination to end poverty, whether he was going to meet ghosts or not.

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“I have grown up believing that a graveyard is a no-go zone for human beings, especially during odd hours like this or else they see the ‘unseen’ such as ghosts; but I was not afraid of anything. I wanted to get rid of my poverty…,” he recalls.

Shava was searching for ‘bones of people with albinism’ and he managed to get them.

He had an order to supply bones of a person with albinism to his colleagues who were businesspeople in Machinga, who promised to turn him into a millionaire.

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The funeral that happened in the neighbouring village in the same week was his opportunity.

Even though he does not explain how he did it, Shava asked around if there was any person with albinism in that cemetery.

Shava claims that someone showed him the grave and he put a stone mark on it; to get at it easily in the night.

Then, he was a mere fisherman who usually operated between Lake Chilwa and Zomba. He earned at least K6,000 daily from the fish business and thought “this was a big opportunity worth pursuing. I was repeatedly told the bones are worth ‘millions”.

For Shava, this was not a sin because he had not killed anyone but rather exhumed bones of a dead person.

He was advised to bring with him a razorblade which would be used to test the bones.

“It is believed that bones of people with albinism, when rubbed with a razorblade, produce an electric surge,” Shava reveals.

A day after the graveyard mission (April 6 2016), Shava went to Namanja Trading Centre where he had agreed to meet his friends.

They took the bones away from him and went into a room nearby to test their value but he was told to wait.

“As I waited for them, some 50 metres away from the room where testing was underway, some civilian police officers appeared from nowhere and arrested me. Others went after my friends and they were caught with the bones red-handed,” Shava says.

But at the time of his arrest, Shava was not sure of who the ‘customer’ of the bones was.

“My friends just assured me that there was a lucrative market in Mozambique,” he says.

Shava faced charges with of being found in possession of human bones, grave tampering and selling human bones.

He was given 36 months imprisonment with hard labour (IHL) while his colleagues were charged with being found in possession of human bones and were given 12 months IHL.

We have learnt that during trial, it transpired that the bones were not that of a person with albinism. The deceased whose bones were exhumed from the grave was buried in 2004. His relations were present at the trial and they confirmed this.

Shava is one of the people who were arrested, tried and convicted grave tampering and being found in possession of human bones.

Shava happens to be one of the people who were convinced that bones of persons with albinism bring fortunes.

Albinism is a rare genetic condition that results in a lack of melanin, which leads to very pale skin, hair and eyes.

National Police spokesperson, James Kadadzera, says the police have received 107 reports concerning abuse of people with albinism. Forty cases have been prosecuted and 11 murder cases are yet to start.

He says police records indicate that there are 56 grave-tampering cases in its books.

“There is no market for bones of people with albinism. People are just speculating for their own gains,” Kadadzera says.

Association of People Living with Albinism (Apam) Executive Director, Boniface Massa, says name calling and physical attacks have reduced.

“There is a growing concern on increased cases of graveyard tampering,” he says.

Even though Massa agrees that the markets are not clear and there is a lot of speculation, Apam’s preliminary investigations indicate that there is a possibility that the market(s) may be both within and outside Malawi.

He adds: “There are traces of Malawians and foreigners involved. Also looking at our culture and beliefs, it’s easy for Malawians to fall into the trap of such malevolent acts.”

“It has happened before; women being killed for their body parts which were used for rituals.”

Apam records indicate that there are 107 (people living with albinism) attack cases from 2014- 2016 December, ranging from murder, abductions, trafficking and graveyard tampering.

Ministry of Health spokeperson, Adrian Chikumbe, says there is no scientific proof that the bones of persons living with albinism are different from those that are not.

“People living with albinism don’t have a melanin pigment in the hair, skin and eyes. That’s the only difference but the bones and everything else is the same as everyone else. Difference in skin colour doesn’t make them different from people that are not living with albinism,” he explains.

Chikumbe emphasises that there is no scientific proof that indicates that the bones of a person living with albinism do produce an electric surge when brought into contact with metals.

Malawi government believes that the killings and abductions of people living with albinism are fuelled the belief in traditional medicine.

But the country lacks the legal framework to regulate the activities of traditional healers.

In November 2016, Solicitor General Janet Banda said if Malawi wanted to win the war against the killing and abductions of people living with albinism, there was need to regulate traditional healing business.

“There are witch-doctors who have been advising people that they can get rich using bones or human tissues of people with albinism. We are collaborating with Ministry of Health to come up with the law to regulate traditional medicine.”

“At the moment, that area is not regulated in Malawi. You see adverts in the newspapers, people claiming on what they can do…In the region, other countries have moved to regulate that area as well to specifically curb what we are grappling with,” she says.

Hoping that when the law is in place (probably this year), there will be more awareness for people like Shave to realise that bones of people living with albinism are like those of anyone else.

Facts about people living with albinism

  • Albinism is an untreatable condition since its cause is genetic
  • Albinism does not affect an individual’s social development
  • One in 15,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa is living with albinism
  • Between years 2000 and 2013, UN received 200 reports of ritual attacks on people with albinism from 15 African countries
  • Those who attack people with albinism range from criminals to family members

Sources: http://www. albinism.org.za, WHO, Amnesty International

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