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Protective alarms used in Malawi to thwart attacks on people with albinism

Many people with the condition fear abduction or death because of local beliefs.

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Catherine, right, with her best neighbourhood friend Aisha (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

Catherine, right, with her best neighbourhood friend Aisha (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

Catherine, right, with her best neighbourhood friend Aisha (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

Malawis with albinism are having to carry personal alarms to help fend off attackers after a spate of killings.

Catherine Amidu, a 17-year-old with albinism, survived an attempt on her life in 2017 when unknown attackers whisked her from her Malawi home in the middle of the night but quickly abandoned her when villagers intervened.

She now sees the new keychain-like alarm as the best way to alert others in case of another attack.

“Without it, it means I don’t have protection at all,” she said.

“What will I do when the people return to finish what they started?”

Malawi Albinism
Mina Godfrey attends class at the Nsanjama 2 Private Primary School in Zomba, Malawi (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

People with albinism in several African countries live in fear of being abducted and killed because of the widespread but mistaken belief that their body parts carry special powers.

Because of the superstition surrounding people with albinism, their body parts can be sold for thousands of dollars.

Catherine’s home district of Machinga has more people with albinism than anywhere else in Malawi, with over 3,000.

The southern African nation has more than 134,000 people with albinism, representing 0.8% of the total population, according to the national statistics office in 2018.

The vulnerability of people with albinism is compounded by poverty and superstition.

Since 2014, at least 26 people with albinism in Malawi have been killed while 11 remain missing, according to the national Association of Persons with Albinism.

Malawi Albinism
Catherine Amidu shows her protective alarm inside her home (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

On February 24, the United Nations office in Malawi condemned a new attack in which a 92-year-old woman with albinism was assaulted by people who cut off two of her toes.

The UN noted a spike in such attacks and killings during election tensions last year.

At the request of the Association of Persons with Albinism, President Peter Mutharika last year appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the abductions and killings.

Its results have not yet been released.

To help address the concerns, the Malawi Police Service in September began distributing personal security alarms.

Authorities say the sound the alarm produces when a pin is pulled alerts people in nearby neighbourhoods to assist whenever a person with albinism is in danger.

At least 5,000 of the alarms have been distributed to people with albinism, Malawi’s finance minister, Joseph Mwanamvekha, told parliament on February 21.

Catherine’s mother, Chrissy Stephano, said the alarms offer hope but shortcomings exist.

She said her daughter is lucky that the local chapter of the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi managed to bring her a spare gadget about two weeks after the original one failed.

“One time, the alarm ran out of batteries and I took it to police for charging, only to collect it sometime later in the same day.

“The problem is that it does not have any accessories like an electric charger one can use to recharge,” Ms Stephano said.

We also have told them (people with albinism) to walk with company and in groups made up of people they rely and trustMercy Mleme

Mercy Mleme, secretary of the local chapter of the Association of Persons with Albinism, acknowledged the problems.

“Being a rural area, we do not have electricity.

“Even in a case where we had power, most persons with albinism live in the remotest of areas and cannot manage to charge their gadgets,” Ms Mleme said.

“We have advised them to take care of themselves because the alarms do not provide enough security.

“We also have told them to walk with company and in groups made up of people they rely and trust.”

In a low-tech alternative to the alarms, the association has encouraged people with albinism to buy whistles to help alert neighbours in case of emergency.

Malawi Albinism
Catherine plays with friends (Thoko Chikondi/AP)

Abdulrazak Baison, chairman of the association’s chapter in Machinga, said they were sidelined when the personal alarms were handed out.

“We cannot even say how many alarms have been distributed because the police were distributing them without involving us,” he said.

He warned that some people were putting too much faith in the alarms and encouraged them to maintain any previous security measures.

“Those that had people accompanying them in their houses for security at night should not stop because they have received alarms. The community surrounding the house of a person with albinism should always be alert,” Mr Baison said.

PA