Deadly superstition: Harry Freeland's 'In the Shadow of the Sun' exposes plight of African albinos


In his documentary, British filmmaker Harry Freeland follows a charismatic human-rights activist, Josephat Torner, and a young man, Vedastus Zangule, who are albinos born in Tanzania. Victims of extreme prejudice in many parts of Africa, albinos are hunted for their body parts, which may then be sold, making the seller a rich man. Female albinos are often raped in the belief that sex with them will cure HIV. During the making of In the Shadow of the Sun, a spate of murders, mutilations and dismemberments of albinos in several Southern African countries, including Tanzania, brought greater attention to their plight, and became part of the narrative of Freeland’s beautifully rendered tale of hope in the midst of horrific violence and greed.

FJI: I read that you were, in part, inspired to make In the Shadow of the Sun when a woman in Tanzania tried to hand you her albino child. Is that a true story?

Freeland: That is a true story, but it was not in Tanzania. Quite a few years before I started making the documentary, I was in Senegal making a film for the British Consul, and a mother approached me on the street and said to me: “Take it back to where it came from.” She was assuming that because I was white it belonged to me in some way. She had been thrown out of her home by her husband and his family because she had given birth to a white child.

They accused her of sleeping with a white man. She was incredibly confused and did not understand why she had given birth to this white baby. I was shocked. When I returned to the U.K. and did some research, I realized how little everyone else knew about albinism. I have a cousin who has albinism, so I understood the condition. It never crossed my mind that it could be a problem in Africa. Later that year, I was making a film in Sierra Leone and I met a woman with albinism living under a cardboard box with her four albino children. That was when I realized that the problem was not just in Senegal, but was widespread through Africa. Then, I began to think how a film could raise awareness around the issue.

FJI: My husband and I were in Africa for six weeks and we did not read about or hear about this issue.

Freeland: I do not think that’s unusual, but where were you?

FJI: In Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Kenya, so does this prejudice exist in these countries?

Freeland: In Kenya and Namibia, for sure. When I began to research the subject properly, I found a farm in Senegal where about 30 people with albinism had fled because they were being so badly treated in their communities. I found that in South Africa women with albinism were being raped in the belief that it cures HIV. Then I found Ukerewe Island, which is where the film finally took focus. I chose it because it’s so isolated and four hours from the mainland. It represents a microcosm of what all people with albinism are up against in Africa.

I started filming before the murders covered in the documentary began, so I had no idea what was about to take place over the next five years. Now, the murders have spread into neighboring Burundi. Over five years, there have been 75 recorded murders in Tanzania. Thirty-four of those were left mutilated. There have been 13 reported killings in Burundi, four in Kenya, three in the Congo and one in Namibia.

FJI: Namibia surprises me.

Freeland: Yes, I agree. You wouldn’t think anything like that would happen in Namibia. There were two in South Africa and three in Nigeria. These are only the reported murders; there have been many more than that. There are few countries where the violence or murders have been as bad as it’s been in Tanzania.

FJI: Are the superstitions similar in every country?

Freeland: There are so many superstitions. In some countries, there are beliefs that people with albinism float on water. In others, there is a belief that if you spit on the belly of a person with albinism you will avoid giving birth to an albino child. They seem to be different everywhere. Many of these myths have been around for a very long time. We don’t know when these murders started, but the first murder was reported in Tanzania in 2006. That was just when it came out in the open, but these things could have been going on for a very long time.

It seems that only Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya have been affected by witch doctors spreading the belief that albino body parts can bring you wealth and good fortune. That sort of trade in albino body parts for thousands of dollars has only been happening in that region. There may be other witchcraft beliefs in other countries as well, but we just don’t know.

FJI: At one point, one of your two protagonists, Josephat, says to people in a village that this is a new phenomenon in Africa, referring to the greed. Could you talk about that?

Freeland: There is such an economic divide in Tanzania and most African countries at the moment, and a lot of people want to get rich quickly. So many are poor and fighting to survive every day. What we know is that three people have been involved in these murders, and it has only been poor Tanzanians who have been caught and prosecuted so far. Although 260 people were arrested, only six have been brought to justice. We see four of those in the film. They are people who have nothing at all.

Although you can’t condone murder in any way, these are desperate people. The ones who really need to get caught are the people who are fueling these murders. We still don’t really know who they are, but these murders seem to rise when there are elections or a mining boom or fishermen start to catch a lot of fish in their net. Whenever these things happen, witch doctors spread the belief that albino body parts can bring you luck or more gold into your mine, or if you put the arm of a albino into your fishing net, it will help bring the fish to the surface. Desperation and poverty are fueling these beliefs.

FJI: If there is a concentrated effort to limit the source of this violence, it might be seen as the government coming down on a particular tribe or ethnic group. I guess there is a Catch-22 in the eyes of some government officials.

Freeland: Possibly. The Tanzanian government did very little for a very long time. If you remember in the film, there is a scene with the prime minister where he breaks down in Parliament. In the U.K., if we saw a politician cry, we probably would not believe it, but Pinda is actually a very good man. He’s a good friend of Josephat’s now, and he’s adopted three children with albinism. He also stripped 240 witch doctors of their licenses.

There were no murders in 2012, but sadly, this year, there were five in February. Tanzania has always been very peaceful in terms of tribal conflict because Julius Nyerere, the old president who passed away and who was called “teacher,” was a very clever man. He spread Swahili across the country by moving different tribal groups to different parts of Tanzania; this spread the language, so the tribes don’t have much animosity toward each other. It is generally considered a safe African country.

FJI: It seems on the surface that the situation in Tanzania can be compared to our civil-rights struggle in the United States, but it occurs to me that our blacks were a slave class for a long time. That is not the situation with albinos in Tanzania, is it?

Freeland: I certainly would not call them a slave class, but here is a good comparison. When I first arrived in Tanzania, I found people with albinism being kept in separate rooms, being made to eat from separate plates and being kept away from the rest of the family. They were kept like animals, so I suppose you could compare it in some ways. People often ask me, if these beliefs are so ingrained in society how anything is ever going to be better, but over the past six years I have seen improvement. Josephat has made a difference, as has the Tanzanian Albino Society; albinos are wearing hats and have a better understanding of skin cancer as a result of the albino activists’ efforts. There is now access to sunscreen, too.

When I first went to Ukerewe Island, the government decided to carry out a survey because they didn’t know how many people with albinism were there. Lots of mothers would hide their albino children. We found 62 people with albinism; many had tried to commit suicide, women, for instance who were regularly being raped. We have all this material but obviously I had to focus the film, as I did, on two characters, Josephat and Vedastus.

FJI: Civil-rights struggles are often also class struggles. Is albinism a class struggle in Tanzania?

Freeland: Yes, in the sense that it is a struggle for education. That is why we strongly believe that if people with albinism are seen as having the same potential as everyone else, if they can be given a chance to become doctors or lawyers or policeman or well-respected members of society, then the stigma will come down. When Josephat returns to his village, he is well-respected, unlike when he was young; now he has status as a result of the education he’s managed to get. He’s an incredibly strong and empowering man.

FJI: You dedicated the film to Leonard.

Freeland: Yes, to Leonard Sasser, who is the founder of the albino society on the island. He died from skin cancer four months into filming. He was my subject for a very long time. I did not meet Josephat until the beginning of 2007 when he organized the first protest. I knew instantly when I saw him that he was the person to tell this story.

FJI: Is Vedastus’ mother’s still alive? She was very ill in the film.

Freeland: Yes, she is. She’s doing really well. We helped her. I don’t know if you got this from the film, but Vedastus is very much like a young Josephat. Josephat’s mother died when he was 11, and Vedastus is facing losing his mum as well.

FJI: I was reminded, watching Josephat, of a black teacher I once knew who would kneel when he met his first-grade students. This allowed the white children to touch his hair, which he thought got them over some of their curiosity about black people.

Freeland: Yes, that is exactly what Josephat does. He knows he needs to bring his enemies and those who believe strange things about him close to him. I think that’s incredible, just like the black teacher you mention.

FJI: The remarkable thing about Josephat and Veda is the fact that they are so lacking in anger. I’m sure they have their moments, but throughout the film I was so surprised at their gentleness.

Freeland: I often see in Africa people laughing at adversity and death because they see it so much. There is a scene in the film when Josephat is with his best friend, also an albino. Leo tells him a story about being jumped in his backyard and they are both laughing. Sometimes, I think you do need to laugh at things when they happen to you every day. Josephat is certainly a person who never cried. He’s been through so much hardship.

It is always very interesting to me, when we play the film, and we have played it all over the world, to hear where the audience laughs. Many feel they can’t laugh, but I think there are many funny moments in the documentary. We should share them with these subjects.

FJI: What’s the one thing you want the audience to take away from your film?

Freeland: I think it’s a very universal story. At some point in our lives, being the Other or being seen as different or feeling marginalized, we can connect at that level with Josephat and Vedastus. What I found taking the film around is that it really makes people want to do something. Josephat’s Facebook page went from six friends to 488 overnight after the first screening of the film. It’s extraordinary, Maria, but we have raised 400,000 English pounds so far through a charity we have established called Standing Voice. It’s always been my dream to tour the film in Tanzania where it is most needed to be seen, and now we will be able to do that.

We will be touring it for an eight-month period in the remotest part of Tanzania where the murders have been most prominent, with Josephat and a team of skin cancer specialists. Also, we will have a well-respected witch doctor or traditional healer—there’s a thin line between the two—and he will publicly condemn the murders in front of all the communities. It’s very exciting.

FJI: So, you will be carrying screens into the bush.

Freeland: Yes, and it sounds like you have experienced this in Africa. Whenever you take a screen into a very remote area, people will walk 20, 30 or 40 kilometers to see the film.

FJI: I saw that in Kenya.

Freeland: So you know the festival atmosphere which people really engage in. The villages we were traveling to during filming were dangerous places, places where the murders happened. There haven’t been any more killings in those communities, so we know that what Josephat was doing is working. He was doing it long before I arrived, and he will continue to do it long after the film opens.

Also see our Human Rights Watch Film Festival interviews with Nagieb Khaja, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and Raoul Peck.