For some time now I have been following the absurd story of witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers in Tanzania who apparently kill people with albinism with the belief that their body parts can be used for medicinal purposes. No, this is not something that used to happen in the 18th century. It is happening now, in 2009. France 24 ran a story on this a few weeks ago. The BBC is reporting that the Tanzanian government has finally decided to do something about the killings – perhaps because of the increased international attention. But their solution is almost as strange as the killings themselves.
They are asking villagers to have a referendum-like affair in which they will ‘vote’ indicating who they suspect to be linked to the murder of albinos. Now I am no anthropologist or sociologist but what kind of law enforcement is this? First of all, the government should be ashamed that it did not sniff this out early enough. This is also a sign of a total failure of social education in Tanzania. These witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers, anthropologists and socialists will love this, ought to be required to get licenses and should be constantly monitored by the government to guarantee best practice – if that is ever possible (In my world they should be completely outlawed). No country in the 21st century should be tolerating such crazy things. And about the killers, they are common criminals who should be arrested and treated as such by law enforcement.
This story also raises the question of culture and tradition in Africa. As I have stated here before, I am no fan of blind traditionalism – a la Negritude. I think that for far too long we have continued to conflate culture and tradition with poverty and ignorance. Having witchdoctors is not traditional. Witchdoctors do the things they do because they do not have laboratories or the knowledge to package their herbs in more efficiently delivered capsules. They are not necessarily alternatives to hospitals as some apologists would have us believe.
And there is absolutely nothing fun about living a ‘traditional life’ as is often described by anthropologists. The “original affluent society”, as they call it, had a life-spun of 30 years and had a reciprocity-based economy that could only support a few dozen people. This will not work in a 40 million man society. Let us stop pretending, there are a lot of traditional practices all across the continent that belong in the dustbin of history. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand, occasionally the volcano will boil over and embarrassing stories like the Tanzania albino story will make it to the headlines of major news sources.