The general election of Malawi increases the market for albino body parts to use in witchcraft rituals designed to help politicians win their seats.
It was a real-life Sophie’s choice: With the albino-hunting gang advancing through her house, Misa Maulidi had seconds to decide which of her children to save and which to abandon to the men who wanted to sacrifice them both.
She had always feared this would happen, particularly with Malawi’s general election looming and politicians reportedly in the market for albino body parts to use in the witchcraft rituals meant to help them win their seats.
It was why she and her extended family had chosen to live in a remote homestead deep in the tobacco plantations of central Malawi, miles from Dedza, the nearest town. Here, secluded from the outside world but with security in numbers, she hoped she could safely raise Goodson, her 14-year-old son, and his three-year-old sister Faith, both born with albinism, a genetic condition that bleaches the skin, hair and eyes white.
But then, a little before midnight on Feb 12, five machete-wielding men smashed down the door of her hut. Mrs Maulidi, who is black, realised immediately what they wanted, but knew she couldn’t save both her children.
She scooped up Faith, dodged past the men into the bush and shouted frantically to Goodson to run to the neighbouring hut where her father and brother slept. His relatives did everything they could to prise the terrified boy from his attackers' grasp. Four of Goodson's relatives, including both his grandmothers, received deep machete cuts as they fought with their bare hands to save him.
It was to no avail. Goodson Makanjira, struggling and whimpering, was dragged into a waiting car. He has not been seen since.
Like Sophie, the character in William Styron’s novel who had to choose one of her children to be gassed at Auschwitz, Mrs Maulidi — who has sent her daughter to a safe house in the south — says she will forever be haunted by her decision. “I was alone, half-asleep, confused,” she said. “I grabbed my daughter and ran to hide in a graveyard hidden in the bush. I just prayed the others would be able to save my son. I was wrong.”
Goodson’s family cannot bring themselves to voice what might have happened to him since he vanished down that dusty road towards distant Dedza. Given what has happened to a growing number of albinos in Malawi, his likely fate is too horrifying to contemplate.
For Malawi’s 10,000-odd albinos, being born with the condition is a curse. Their fathers often desert them at birth, believing their wives have been unfaithful with a white man.
At school they face bullying. Many suffer semi-blindness and risk skin cancer from the mercilessness of the African sun, which causes the young to look prematurely old.
But worse, they live in a society where too many only value them dead. Those captured by the albino-hunting gangs are either killed immediately or taken to places of ritual sacrifice by rivers. There, witchdoctors can wash away the blood as they remove the innards and limbs of their victims, according to activists and the testimony of some witchdoctors themselves.
The killings, it is widely believed, are done to order, carried out by an organised criminal network acting on behalf of rich clients willing to pay thousands of pounds for albino body parts believed to bring wealth and political good fortune. Who those clients are no-one knows, for none have ever been brought to trial. But senior government and opposition figures, who say they themselves have been urged to go to witchdoctors when the political winds have blown against them, believe that politicians are heavily involved in the trade.
Attempts to document albino killings only began in late 2014 after activists noticed an increase in attacks in the build up to Malawi’s general election earlier that year. Since then, the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) has documented 25 murders, 15 disappearances and 122 cases of attempted abductions and the exhumation of albino bodies from graves.
With another election due to take place in May, activists say there has again been a surge in attacks over recent months. As the scandal has grown, even Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s president, has been implicated, while the personal bodyguard of Lazarus Chakwera, a leading opposition candidate contesting the presidency, has been arrested.
Since New Year’s Eve, when a gang entered the Kwenda Phiri family home in Nkhata Bay on the shores of Lake Malawi, there have been at least 11 attacks, according to Ian Simbota, APAM’s secretary-general.
Some time before midnight on January 31, as the revelry grew more raucous outside, George Kwenda Phiri crept into his parents' bedroom only to find four men standing over his groaning albino father, sleeping alone as his wife was away. Wide-eyed in terror, the hand of one of the attackers clasped over his mouth, George, who is nine, watched as his dying father was dismembered and disembowelled.
Three weeks later, Loness Nkhonjera briefly left her house in northern Malawi to use the loo in the early hours of the morning. When she went back inside a few minutes later, her 18-month old albino daughter Eunice had vanished. She, too, is yet to be found.
Crude superstitious beliefs, even if only upheld by a minority, are widespread in Africa, with albino attacks reported in 28 countries across the continent. Some have made progress in protecting their albino minorities; Tanzania, which has banned witchdoctors, and Nigeria have both created island refuges. Kenya has elected an albino senator and organises albino beauty contests. But nowhere in Africa is it more dangerous to be an albino than Malawi, activists reckon.
A first step in fixing the problem, they say, is to hold accountable those behind the killings. Yet, if anything, solving crimes against albinos is becoming ever harder amid allegations of a high-level cover up. Since the beginning of the year, two key suspects who may have held vital clues about the attacks have died mysteriously after being taken into custody, including Buleya Lule, accused of being in the car that carried away Goodson Makanjira. A post mortem found that he had been beaten and electrocuted while in detention. His death does not necessarily suggest a conspiracy, says Hetherwick Ntaba, the president’s chief domestic policy adviser and chairman of the government’s task force on albinism issues.
“The other side of the coin in all this is that the police, desperately trying to extract information from suspects, may simply, in their frustration, have got carried away in their physical interrogations,” he said. The government's response has done little to quell allegations of a political conspiracy, in which even Dr Ntaba has been implicated.
The most damaging allegations have been made by Bon Kalindo, a firebrand opposition MP. While in custody in January on charges of insulting the president in song, he says he interviewed suspects — including a Roman Catholic priest and a policeman — charged with murdering a young Albino man in 2015.
He claims they told him that the president and Mr Ntaba were among those involved in the trade in albino body parts. Leaked audio recordings made by the same suspects making similar claims have been circulated widely in Malawi. President Mutharika’s government strongly denies the allegations, suggesting that, in a chronically corrupt country whose people are the world's sixth poorest, his accusers may have been bribed by the opposition as part of a pre-election smear campaign.
“It is a total fabrication,” Dr Ntaba said. “They are using albinism issues as a campaign tool to tarnish the image of the president and the government.”
Amid the claims and denials, successful prosecutions look farther away than ever. There is little evidence of a concerted campaign, in a country where most profess Christianity but many cling to traditional beliefs, to persuade people that albino body parts do not have magical powers.
Even Mr Kalindo, who has campaigned for albino rights for three years, claims they are true. If you place a bottle of coke over an albino’s bones, he maintains, it will begin to fizz and the top will pop off. “Albino bones have magnetic qualities,” he says. “There is a fluid in them that allows you to make money in the millions. So politicians use them in machines that print money.” While such claims are blithely accepted it is little wonder that Malawi’s albinos live in terror every day.
“I’ve stopped going out, I’ve stopped working, every night is a night spent in fear.” - Femia Chulani* *She escaped abduction in the southern city of Blantyre after gangsters masquerading as policemen tried to abduct her.
Across the country, albinos recount similar stories, telling of the abject wretchedness of living with a condition which they did not choose and over which they have no control. All they yearn for is to live peacefully with their families in safety.
That prospect seems as distant as ever for Bertha Ngalande, an albino teacher in the southern town of Mulanje, who cowered with her family in her house as a gang of men shone torches into her house last month. She does not know why they eventually disappeared, but she lives in fear that they might return, a fear that has turned to suspicion of everyone outside her immediate family.
“I’ don't trust my neighbors. I don't trust anyone who comes too close to me. I am not safe at any time.” - Bertha Ngalande