Pros­thet­ics give hope to Africa’s hunted al­bino kids


Like other lit­tle boys, Baraka Cos­mas Lusambo loves to play soc­cer. When he hears mu­sic, his feet tap and his face breaks out into a wide smile. Dur­ing sum­mer pool time re­cently, he used his left hand to toss a ball through a bas­ket­ball hoop while red arm float­ies keep him above wa­ter.

The joy van­ished, though, when he was re­minded of the night men armed with torches and knives burst into his fam­ily’s home in western Tan­za­nia, knocked his mother un­con­scious and sliced off his other hand.

“We were sim­ply sleep­ing when some­one just ar­rived,” Baraka said. “They came to me with ma­chetes.”

Baraka has al­binism, a con­di­tion that leaves its af­flicted with lit­tle or no pig­ment in their skin or eyes. In some tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties of Tan­za­nia and other coun­tries in Africa, al­bi­nos, as they’re of­ten called, are thought to have mag­i­cal prop­er­ties, and their body parts can fetch thou­sands of U.S. dol­lars on the black mar­ket as in­gre­di­ents in witch doc­tors’ po­tions said to give the user wealth and good luck.

Baraka and four other chil­dren with his con­di­tion have es­caped the threat, at least tem­po­rar­ily, brought to the United States by the Global Med­i­cal Re­lief Fund, a char­ity started by Elissa Mon­tanti in 1997 that helps chil­dren from cri­sis zones get cus­tom pros­the­ses.

Mon­tanti, moved by an ar­ti­cle she read about Baraka, reached out to Un­der the Same Sun, a Canad­abased group that ad­vo­cates for and pro­tects peo­ple with al­binism in Tan­za­nia and had been shel­ter­ing Baraka since his at­tack in March.

When Mon­tanti asked if she could help him, the group asked whether she would also help four other vic­tims get pros­thet­ics, as well. She agreed and brought all five to live for the sum­mer at her char­ity’s home in New York’s Staten Is­land while they un­der­went the process of get­ting fit­ted for and learn­ing to use pros­the­ses about two hours away at Philadelphia Shriners Hos­pi­tal for Chil­dren.

“They’re not get­ting their arm back,” Mon­tanti said. “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.”

Al­binism af­fects about one out of ev­ery 15,000 peo­ple in Tan­za­nia, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Any­one with the con­di­tion is at risk, and peo­ple at­tacked once can be at­tacked again

The gov­ern­ment there out­lawed witch doc­tors last year in hopes of cur­tail­ing the at­tacks, but the new law hasn’t stopped the butcher­ing. There has been a sharp in­crease in at­tacks in Tan­za­nia and neigh­bor­ing Malawi, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Tan­za­nia recorded at least eight at­tacks in the past year.

The chil­dren have been in the U.S. since June. Once they re­ceive their new limbs af­ter a few months, they will re­turn home to safe houses in Tan­za­nia run by Un­der the Same Sun. Mon­tanti’s fund will bring them back to the U.S. to get new pros­the­ses as they grow.

On a re­cent visit to the hos­pi­tal, Baraka was fit­ted for a pros­thetic right hand. He poked at the flesh­col­ored plas­tic hand as it lay be­side him on the ex­am­i­na­tion ta­ble. His at­ro­phied right arm was barely able to lift the pro­to­type pros­the­sis, but that was to be ex­pected; it would grow stronger once the pros­thetic hand was in place.

One of the other vic­tims, 17-yearold Kab­ula Nkarango Masanja, said that her at­tack­ers asked her fam­ily for money, and that her mother of­fered the fam­ily’s bi­cy­cle be­cause they had none. The at­tack­ers re­fused, held the girl down and in three hacks cut off her right arm to the armpit. Be­fore leav­ing with her arm in a plas­tic bag, her at­tack­ers told her mother other men would be back to take her daugh­ter’s or­gans — but they didn’t re­turn.

The girl thinks con­stantly about her miss­ing limb.

“I feel bad be­cause I still don’t know what they did with my arm, where it is, what ben­e­fits they de­rived from it — or if they sim­ply dumped it,” said Kab­ula, a tall girl with a sweet voice who once sang “In the Sweet By and By” for the non­profit group.

Be­tween trips to the hos­pi­tal, Mon­tanti has filled the chil­dren’s sum­mer with typ­i­cal Amer­i­can ac­tiv­i­ties. In late July, the chil­dren went to a swimming pool for the first time ever. Vol­un­teer life­guards helped them nav­i­gate the wa­ter.

Mon­tanti said that they’ve be­come like her adopted kids, and that she has grown es­pe­cially close to Baraka.

As the group gath­ered re­cently for a bar­be­cue din­ner near the pool, Mon­tanti in­ter­locked one of her hands with Baraka’s re­main­ing one and whis­pered, “I love you.”


(Above) His first time swimming, Mwigulu Magesa floats alone with the aid of a life pre­server in the deep end of the pool dur­ing a visit to a home in Oys­ter Bay, New York, July 20. (Left) Em­manuel Rutema, 13, of Tan­za­nia, laughs with Elissa Mon­tanti, left, founder and di­rec­tor of the Global Med­i­cal Re­lief Fund, and in­ter­preter Es­ter Rwela ahead of his surgery at the Shriners Hos­pi­tal for Chil­dren in Philadelphia, Penn­syl­va­nia, June 30.

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