Kojo chats with two reporters who spent the past year following the launch of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.'s new school for boys of color. Their stories are now featured in "Raising Kings," a collaboration between NPR and Education Week.
Tanzanian BBC reporter Vicky Ntetema regularly contributed to international news programs, but never expected her life to become a part of the story. That changed when Ntetema uncovered East Africa’s dark secret: many traditional witchdoctors were responsible for the many brutal attacks and murders of Tanzanians with albinism. How the deaths and her investigation exposed uncomfortable truths about the culture, government, and the nature of skin color in Africa.
- Vicky Ntetema Reporter in Tanzania, formerly with BBC; also, Executive Director for Media and International Affairs, Under The Same Sun (UTSS)Tanzania
ABC News produced a video piece on a Tanzanian woman with Albinism who got new arms:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlbinism, that is the absence of pigment in your skin, is a recessive trait that occurs naturally when two parents, each carrying a recessive gene, produce a baby. In America one in every 17,000 babies is born with albinism. In East Africa, with its more isolated gene pool, the number is much higher, one in every 4,000 babies is born with albinism. But traditional beliefs in parts of Africa put high value on the skin, the hair and the bones of albinos. When the killing and maiming of African albinos skyrocketed in recent years, one brave Tanzanian journalist decided to take this on.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's in the U.S. this week to receive an International Award For Courage In Journalism. We thought we'd ask if she had any idea what she was getting into when she went undercover. Vicky Ntetema is a Tanzanian reporter who worked for the BBC. She joins us in studio. Vicky, thank you very much for joining us.
MS. VICKY NTETEMAThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIFirst, tell us about what are the traditional beliefs about people with albinism, albinos in East Africa, and where do those beliefs come from?
NTETEMAI think they originated from their ancestors and generation after generation has been told that persons with albinism are not people, they're ghost-like creatures. In (word?) Swahili, they say, "zeru zeru," and they are -- they have a condition that can be -- that can infect someone else. They think that albinism is contagious and they think that a person with albinism is a curse and that will bring bad things, a disaster in an area where that person lives.
NNAMDIThere is also some association with albinism and the parts of people with albinism and good fortune?
NTETEMAThat is a new thing because in the past, they were just killed at birth because they would bring disasters a village. It's a bad omen and they'll bring bad luck to the family. But recently, they started killing them for their body parts. And they say that they've got some ingredients in their bodies that can help to make people richer and successful.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Vicky Ntetema. She's a Tanzanian reporter who worked for the BBC, who went undercover to understand exactly why people with albinism in East Africa were being killed and maimed. You can join this conversation at 800-433-8850 or you can send us an e-mail to email@example.com, a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIVicky, take us back to the day you decided to go undercover, to wear a wire and carry a hidden camera and pose as a person who wanted to buy an albino body part. What started you off on this journey?
NTETEMAI didn't believe that in Tanzania people were being killed for their body parts and in the 21st century that people should still believe in witchcraft. I lived in Europe for many years so when I went back about five years ago, I thought the country is the same, the way I left it, that it how it was. And, um, when I left, people were not murdering other for their body parts. Definitely, there was no racism. I don't see any racism in Tanzania. I never saw it until now. So...
NNAMDIWhen you were growing up, did you know friends -- did you know people who had albinism? Did you have playmates who would be described at albino?
NTETEMAYes. We -- we had neighbors. I used to call their fathers -- they were twins. I used to call them uncles and the children, we played with them. I have brothers. All those who come after me in my family are boys so we were playing with the boys with albinism and I used to join in a football game. And for me, they were just children just like me. I didn't see them as persons with a different shade of skin. I just treated as my brothers. That's all.
NNAMDIAnd something changed, you feel, during the time that you were away?
NTETEMAI think something changed and people started believing in things that witch doctors tell them. Maybe they have been believing in witch doctors for many years, but this idea of believing in a witch doctor who tells you that a body part of a certain person will make you wealthy, that was a surprise to me. So in December 2007, when I started hearing these stories that persons with albinism are being murdered, I thought, this is not Tanzania.
NTETEMAThis cannot happen in my country. So why are they being murdered? And then, I was told that there were four reported cases, by that time, of murdered persons with albinism. But also, two graves had been robbed and those graves belonged to people with albinism and that their bones were stolen. So I thought why would someone go and steal bones, if it is not for scientific purposes? So what is it?
NTETEMASo on the 17th of December, there was a press conference and the organization of persons with albinism, it's called Tanzania Albino Society, they held that press conference. And one person said, the government is keeping quiet about these up 'til now, on the 17th of December, nobody has commented on the killings. Four people have died and two graves have been desecrated, but nothing from the government.
NTETEMASo another person got up and said, if, scientifically, people can prove that persons with albinism possess some form of ingredients that will make others richer, than we -- persons with albinism in Tanzania -- will sacrifice so that our fellow Tanzanians could be wealthy and there will be no poverty. And for me, that touched me because one, I thought the person is -- the person who spoke was posing doubts on the witch doctors' claims that their body parts can make other successful.
NNAMDICalling on them to prove it.
NTETEMAYes. But on the other side, it was a cry for help because the government, at that time, hadn't said anything, hadn't commented on anything. So I thought maybe it's time for me to get down to the witch doctors and start the investigation.
NNAMDIWell, one clarification. Who are witch doctors? Are they traditional healers, the people who in other societies are sometimes described as a shaman or a shaman, some people would call it? Who are the traditional healers and were all or most of the traditional healers involved in this practice, as far as you know?
NTETEMATraditional healers used to use -- they were using herbs to treat illnesses. And the government issued licenses to these traditional healers because some people would find it easier to go to witch doctors than to go to hospitals and because witch doctors are in rural areas and we don't have many hospitals in these rural areas. And these traditional healers, they say they're different from witch doctors because witch doctors believe in witchcraft.
NTETEMATraditional healers would treat your illnesses, but there is no fine line. Because you find, traditional healers also would tell you that, oh, you have been bewitched. And these are traditional healers. So if they tell you that you have been bewitched and then they can treat you or they can harm another person who they say or claim that is bewitching you, it means that they are practicing witchcraft.
NTETEMASo because there is no fine line, and the government knows that there is no fine line, for me and for many others, a traditional healer is a witch doctor.
NNAMDIWe are talking with Vicky Ntetema. She's a Tanzanian reporter, who worked for the BBC World Service, who went undercover to find out exactly why people with albinism or albinos were being killed and maimed in East Africa. She is in Washington D.C. this week to receive the International Women's Media Foundation Courage Award. Vicky, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd now, tell us about the courage part. What did it take for you to decide to go undercover, to wear a wire and carry a hidden camera. How did you -- how did this come about?
NTETEMAWhen I left Dar es Salaam, that is the main commercial capital of Tanzania, to go to the villages, I didn't know how I would go and face these witch doctors. On my way there, I thought, I'll just take out my microphone and put in front of a witch doctor and say, okay, do you kill persons with albinism? And then, I thought on my way there, suppose they do? Are they going to say to me, yes, we do?
NNAMDII don't think so.
NTETEMASo I thought, what's the best way of doing these things is to befriend them. If I befriend them and I say that I'm a businessman and I want to be rich. And because I heard that in the northwestern part of the country, that is the lake zone where Lake Victoria is, is bordering Uganda and Kenya on the other side, the witch doctors helps businessmen and women who are involved in the mining and fishing industry and that is where the body parts are used.
NTETEMAAnd so I said to them that I have a fishing business and also I have a mining business and I want to become wealthy. And that I know that my friends get better products and I get none and we dig in the same area or we go fishing in the same area. And that is the time when now, they started opening up. I went there in March...
NNAMDIOf this year?
NTETEMA...of 2008. I had to go again in May just to gain confidence -- to gain their confidence.
NNAMDITo gain their confidence, correct.
NTETEMAYeah, their confidence. And also, I had to go again in July. It was in July 2008, when I recorded them and also filmed them secretly without them knowing. And that is when they opened up and told me that they can get an albino -- that's what they call them, zeru zeru. I call them persons with albinism. And that they said, these things are everywhere in every homestead so it's very easy to get one.
NTETEMAThey told me first that I should go and get albino body parts. So I said, I cannot do that because, you know, I can't kill. I'm a woman. I cannot kill so how are you going to help me? So they said that they will get it for me. And I -- they said to me that the down payment should be $1,000 -- equivalent to $1,000 and that will make them believe that I'll come for the body part. Any body part, whether it's an arm, a leg, hair, blood, that will cost me -- that cost a minimum of $2,000 U.S.
NTETEMASo if you put $1,000 U.S. as a down payment, then they will know that you will come for it. And then, they told me to call them a week before I go there so that they know that I was going. And then, when I reached there, I give them the remaining balance and then they'll get me the body parts.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Vicky Ntetema. She's a Tanzanian reporter who went undercover to understand the business of selling the body parts of people with albinism or albinos in Tanzania. So you do all of this, you get their confidence, you tape the conversations, you film them, you now have a date to arrive to get body parts. What happens next?
NTETEMAOkay. I was leaving now to go back after I visited about 11 of them. And the last one, the 11th one, I spent about three days going there in this -- in that month, in July. And I didn't realize that he was accommodating some policemen and some of them -- some of the police officers heard me when I went to their headquarters that I was investigating albino killings. And so he told me -- this witch doctor said that, okay, have you seen them on the outside? And I said, yes, and he said he's a police officer.
NTETEMAAnd I said why is the police officer here? And he said to me, it's because he lives here. And that, you know, I always work with the policemen and also politicians. And he said to me that they've got a network all the way from Tanzania to Kenya, Uganda, Ruanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. So if there is one -- if one witch doctor in one country wants a body part and others have the body parts so they can ship it to them.
NTETEMAAnd so he said to me that, you know, the relationship between me and the policeman is very strong and sometimes I make some medicine for them in order for them to go and rob somewhere, whether it is bank robbery or if it is hijacking of a passenger vehicle.
NNAMDISo we're talking about police corruption also?
NTETEMAYes, we do. So he said that I can make some medicine for them and they will not be seen and they will not be caught. And so I started getting worried then. And so he said, he is supposed to come here and I'm supposed to make medicine for him. But you have taken much of my time, so I don't have time for him. So when I was going out, I saw that guy again still waiting. And then, in the middle of the road on my way back to the nearest city or big town from this village, I received a call from a traditional healer.
NTETEMAAt that time, I thought he was a good man. And these traditional healers, who is different from these witch doctors, according to him because he had his own clinic and he was treating patients there, said to me, you have to leave the area right now because they know that you are not a business woman, you are an investigator. So they are after you.
NTETEMASo I said, how did they know that? And he said that, when you came out of the -- they call it surgery, the witch doctor surgery, did you see a policeman? I said, I was told that he was a policeman. So he said that, okay, they have told the witch doctors in the area that you are not a businesswoman.
NNAMDIBecause they had overheard you when you first went to the police station to say that you were investigating these witch doctors?
NTETEMAYes. And also, this particular police officer was angry because he was supposed to receive some medicine for something that only the witch doctors and himself know and I delayed that process.
NNAMDISo now, you have been exposed and what do you do then? You go ahead and tell the story, air the story?
NTETEMAI went straight to the police headquarters in the town and told them about all the villages that I have visited and had said that they had promised to give me the body parts of persons with albinism when I come back in August 2008. And I'm worried that they will go and kill, but I haven't given them any down payment. But also, they are not good traditional healers, they are witch doctors.
NTETEMAAnd the President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, had said, anyone who is involved in albino killings, he should be arrested, any witch doctor. And so I said to them, arrest them for that because they said they can get me some body parts.
NNAMDIAnd you have it on -- you have it recorded?
NTETEMAYes. And I said to them, I'll give you the evidence if you need to listen to that. I made them listen to a very small part, but I didn't want to give everything to them, because according to the BBC policy, even just telling them about the findings was improper. But for me, it was security and safety first of persons with albinism in that area.
NTETEMASo I thought if we go an air and these witch doctors are still running the villages there, then more people will be killed. So I really wanted the policemen to go and arrest them, but they did not.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that a great number of Tanzanians with albinism are now in hiding, don't go anyplace without bodyguards.
NTETEMAWell, some of them, but it's difficult for the country -- for the government to give this protection to every person with albinism. In the first place, no one knows how many people with albinism are there in Tanzania. A census was supposed to have taken place, but nobody was counted. And if they did, just a few people.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, but two things. It's my understanding that your own life has been threatened as a result of revealing this, correct?
NTETEMAYes. It was from that very day when I was told that I have to leave the area. Then I started receiving telephone calls and messages.
NNAMDIAnd this is an election year and that has you worried. Why?
NTETEMABecause the witch doctors said that they help politicians to win elections and 93 percent of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft. This is according to Pew Form on Religion and Public Life Study. But also, recently, the Tanzanian government said that 60 percent of Tanzanians believe in witch doctors and they go to witch doctors. And so the ban that was imposed on witch doctors' practices 21 months ago has been lifted.
NTETEMASo if they use body parts, according to these witch doctors -- these politicians, then we are in trouble because the ban has been lifted, elections will be on the 30th of October and witch doctors do help politicians win elections.
NNAMDILast year, the Tanzanian government finally took some steps to begin educating people on albinism. And if you'd like more information, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and you'll find links to organizations that are working to try to prevent this in East Africa. Vicky Ntetema is a Tanzanian reporter, who worked for the BBC World Service, who went undercover to reveal that this was going on.
NNAMDIVicky Ntetema is in Washington to receive an International Women's Media Foundation Courage Award. Thank you very much for joining us and good luck to you.
NTETEMAThank you for having me here, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you for all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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