Vicky Ntetema is one of Tanzania’s most famous – and infamous – women. The 57-year-old former BBC journalist is the executive director of Under the Same Sun, a non-governmental agency that fights discrimination against people with albinism, a congenital disorder that prevents the production of melanin for the skin.
According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, albinism is much more prevalent in Tanzania and other sub-Saharan African nations than anywhere else in the world. For example, only 1 out of 17,000 to 20,000 people in Europe and North America have albinism in some form. In Tanzania, 1 out of 1,400 people do.The same UN report found that over 340 attacks of people with albinism have been documented in 25 countries as of 2014. Of those attacks, nearly one-third were murders. According to Ntetema and various media reports, most attacks on people of albinism happen on the African continent.
Ntetema’s advocacy for people with albinism earned her a 2016 International Women of Courage Award from Secretary of State John Kerry. She is one of 14 honorees, most of whom work in developing nations.
Though she has been honored for her work, Ntetema also has incurred the wrath of many of her fellow Tanzanians. Her life has even been threatened, she said.
“Everyone was up-in-arms, saying I’ve tarnished the image of Tanzania,” Ntetema told Message during a recent U.S. visit courtesy of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. “I would have expected that the minister of home affairs who is in charge of the police force would protect me. I was wrong. He said that I was public enemy number one.”
And that’s because the brutal discrimination endured by people with albinism has been deeply ingrained in Tanzanian culture. Ntetema said that Tanzanian witchdoctors teach that the body parts of people with albinism have magical properties. Consequently, they are mutilated or killed so their body parts can be used in potions and rituals. It’s estimated that 93 percent of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft – including some who identify as Christians, Muslims or adherents of traditional African religions.
Ntetema began to investigate the attacks against people with albinism while working as the BBC’s bureau chief in Tanzania. She went undercover, posing as a buyer of body parts, and was able to expose grisly networks of killers and sellers, some of whom targeted their own loved ones.
“We have had quite a lot of cases where fathers, uncles, maybe even grandfathers are involved,” Ntetema said. “They believe that sometimes human organs can help solve their problems. This is fueled by witch doctors. ”
Ntetema recalled one particularly disturbing attack of a woman with albinism who had a 6-month-old baby and was engaged to be married. Suspicions about her fiancée arose after the attack.
“He didn’t care when she was taken to the hospital,” Ntetema said. “That is why people deduced that maybe that he was also involved.”
Last year, USA Today reported that some families who have members with albinism are striking back. They are attacking the alleged witches and sorcerers who encourage the gruesome trade that targets people with albinism. More than 1,000 suspected witches were killed in 2014, according to advocacy groups.
“The government has failed to apprehend witch doctors who kill our innocent people,” Wilson Asida told USA Today. “They have killed many albinos to help them gain magical powers. We’ll kill them ourselves to get justice.”
This bizarre superstition about people with albinism is fueled by ancient beliefs, the desire of witches and sorcerers to retain influence, and the greed of tribal chiefs and kings.
“They always consult witch doctors,” Ntetema said. “Even before they leave their compounds. If they go to war or if they want to make friends with another chiefdom or kingdom, they have to consult witch doctors.”
Ntetema’s advocacy for people with albinism began when she was about 7 or 8, after being saved from drowning by a teenage girl who had no feet.
“She was using a stick (for) walking,” Ntetema said. “She is the only one who came to my rescue. Others ran away from me.”
The teen stretched her walking stick beneath the water, hoping that Ntetema would be able to grab it. She did, and the girl with no feet pulled her to safety.
“So from that time, anyone who said something bad about people with disabilities, they had me to answer [to] in that school,” Ntetema said.
Some 50 years later, the bullies are now killers and mutilators. The victims are people with albinism, coveted for their body parts due to ancient superstitions and modern greed.
And just as she did as a child, Ntetema defends the victims of this twisted bigotry, facing down the killers and mutilators. She advocates for the victims and survivors – even to the point of risking her life – motivated, perhaps, by the girl with no feet who once saved her life.