From Albinism in Africa to the Lancashire Witches

As part of the Lancaster University Public Lectures series and the ESRC Festival of Social Science, Dr Charlotte Baker of the Department of Languages & Cultures presented a talk on her research into albinism within Africa.

Baker was introduced by Prof. Dame Sue Black, Lancaster University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Engagement), who introduced the audience to the Festival and covered some of the other events coming up, including cancer metaphor cafes, refugee photography exhibits and a pub quiz on campus. She reiterated her belief that the university—particularly an anchor university like Lancaster—had a civic duty to fulfil, and that these public events were one way in which the university was fulfilling this duty.

Baker began with a sobering statistic: over 600 people with albinism in Africa have been attacked since record-keeping began in 2007. Baker then jumped back in time to her Ph.D studies in Francophone literature, during which she read Sassine’s Mémoire D’une Peau: Roman, which introduced her to the issues faced by people with albinism in Africa. Albinism is a rare, multispecies genetic condition that effects 1 in 30,000 Europeans and 1 in 2,000 Africans (and even as many as 1 in 1,500 in Malawi). It is recessive and skips generations, so two parents without albinism can have a child with it and vice versa.

Albinism comes with the obvious symptom of inhibiting melanin production, but also leads to complications such as visual impairments. Those with the condition are particularly vulnerable to skin cancer; 50 % of Africans with albinism die before they are 40 from it. There are also many misconceptions, such as a belief that those with albinism are unintelligent, that albinism is contagious and, most perniciously, that sleeping with women with albinism can cure AIDs. Prevalence in parts of Africa is less than would be expected, leading to suspicions of infanticide. Due to social stigma, many Africans with albinism are only able to find employment in jobs that they are not suited for, such as agriculture.

In 2007, an albinism advocacy group called Under the Same Skin began recording attacks, ranging from rapes, mutilations, grave robberies and abductions. Showing a photo of a child with albinism who had had her arm severed to sell on, Baker told us the prices that body parts could fetch: around $2,000 for a single limb, and up to $75,000 for a full set of body parts. She mapped the trade routes: attackers to middlemen (who transport the body parts, including across borders) to wealthy buyers (often within the political classes) to the witch doctors who have convinced them that the body parts will grant them power. No-one has yet identified a high-level buyer; only the lower-level people in the chain are caught.

Upon shifting her focus from literature studies to human rights, Baker helped to set up the Albinism in Africa Network, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, which gathered experts in order to disseminate information. She also organised the first international workshop on albinism in Cameroon in 2015, which had a less academic focus and which produced a booklet for teachers in Tanzania that helped to explain albinism and was they could help students with albinism in the classroom, which Baker told has us has already improved attainment in schools.

She then moved on to witchcraft in general. Citing Hutton, she explains four kinds of witchcraft:

  • that which causes harm (or seeks to cause harm) using mystic abilities;
  • anyone using magic;
  • a Pagan, nature based religion; and
  • a symbol of female resistance.

She also cited the 2009 report by Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions which stated that human rights abuses due to witchcraft were not sufficiently on the radar of human rights organisations. She also highlighted the wider witchcraft picture, citing Ghanaian witch camps and the murder of 8-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000. She addressed her own efforts to produce a UN resolution on witchcraft, which was due to be tabled in March 2020.

She described the first ever UN expert meeting on witchcraft, where delegates heard from those who had been accused of practicing witchcraft, those with albinism who had been targeted for their body parts and worldwide human rights representatives. There is, however, hope: Baker explained that, following increased pressure, the Tanzanian government had begun taking steps to register the practices of witch doctors, and she also cited the work of Dr Dinesh Mishra who for two decades has travelled India challenging superstitions and harmful beliefs.

She also highlighted Lancaster’s efforts, hosting a conference on witchcraft earlier in the year. The event had been held in Lancaster to tie in to its own history with witchcraft, specifically the trial and executions of the Pendle witches in 1612. Witches were present in the discussion, added Baker, as were the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN). She also highlighted that witchcraft-related human rights abuses were not just an African problem; the UK saw 1,460 in 2016 and 1,630 in 2017–18 (mostly, coincidentally enough, in Lancaster).

Baker concluded with the lessons she had learned from the project about the value of collaboration and the need to interact with people outside of the Academy who actually read the things you right and feed back to you their thoughts.

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