Death by Superstition

 Posted by on 13 June 2008 at 2:58 pm  Culture, Epistemology
Jun 132008

As today is the supposedly unlucky Friday the 13th, it’s a fitting day for a reminder of just how deadly magical thinking can be. Via the New York Times comes a chilling example of albinos in Tanzania hunted down and slaughtered for their supposedly magical properties:

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Samuel Mluge steps outside his office and scans the sidewalk. His pale blue eyes dart back and forth, back and forth, trying to focus. The sun used to be his main enemy, but now he has others. Mr. Mluge is an albino, and in Tanzania now there is a price for his pinkish skin. “I feel like I am being hunted,” he said.

Discrimination against albinos is a serious problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but recently in Tanzania it has taken a wicked twist: at least 19 albinos, including children, have been killed and mutilated in the past year, victims of what Tanzanian officials say is a growing criminal trade in albino body parts.

Many people in Tanzania — and across Africa, for that matter — believe albinos have magical powers. They stand out, often the lone white face in a black crowd, a result of a genetic condition that impairs normal skin pigmentation and strikes about 1 in 3,000 people here. Tanzanian officials say witch doctors are now marketing albino skin, bones and hair as ingredients in potions that are promised to make people rich.

As if being born with a serious genetic disorder wasn’t enough of a burden in life, these people face the prospect of a gruesome death thanks to primitive superstition — in a scientific age when men have walked on the moon. It’s almost unfathomable.

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