The children's limbs are sought after by witch doctors for use in potions

By Alex Heigl
Updated August 18, 2015 09:30 AM
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Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

“They came to me with machetes.”

Baraka Cosmas Lusambo, a 5-year-old from western Tanzania, is recounting the story of how he lost his hand. Men broke into his family’s home, knocked his mother unconscious and cut off his right hand with a machete.

They did this horrific act because Baraka has albinism, a condition that renders those affected mostly devoid of pigment in their skin, hair and eyes. People (and animals – the disorder affects all vertebrates) lack tyrosinase, an enzyme that contains copper and is necessary for the body’s production of melanin.

And in traditional African communities, albino individuals are a precious commodity. Thought to have magical powers, their body parts can be sold for thousands of dollars on the black market, bought and sold for use in potions said to bring wealth and good luck. About one in 15,000 Tanzanians has albinism, and while the government outlawed witch doctors last year to try and curtail attacks, there has actually been an increase in attacks in Tanzania and its neighbor Malawi: Tanzania recorded at least eight attacks in the past year.

Elissa Montanti of Staten Island, New York, started the Global Medical Relief Fund in 1997 to help children from crisis zones get custom prostheses. After reading a story about Baraka, she reached out to a Canada-based group called Under the Same Sun that works on behalf of people with albinism in Tanzania. The group had been sheltering Baraka since he was attacked in March, and Montanti wanted to help.

The group asked if she could help four other victims get prosthetics, and eventually all five children came to live in Staten Island, where Montanti’s charity is located, while they started the process of getting prostheses at Philadelphia’s Shriners Hospital for Children.

“They’re not getting their arm back,” Montanti told the Associated Press. “But they are getting something that is going help them lead a productive life and be part of society and not be looked upon as a freak or that they are less than whole.”

Montanti has made sure to fill the group’s summer with typically “American” activities, like BBQs and swimming. She told the AP that the five have become like her adopted children, adding that she’s grown especially close to Baraka.

Another victim, 17-year-old Kabula Nkarango Masanja, had her entire arm cut off by men who promised to return for her organs. They left with the limb in a plastic bag.

“I feel bad because I still don’t know what they did with my arm, where it is, what benefits they derived from it,” Kabula told the AP, “or if they simply dumped it.”