NEW YORK – Late in the spring, as 5-year-old Baraka Cosmas Lusambo slept in his family’s home in western Tanzania, men wielding torches and knives burst in, knocked his mother unconscious, held him down and sliced off his right hand in the name of witchcraft.
Baraka has albinism, a condition that leaves the afflicted with little or no pigment in their skin or eyes — and makes their body parts valuable on the black market in parts of Africa as ingredients in potions said to give the user wealth and good luck.
“We were simply sleeping when someone just arrived,” Baraka told The Associated Press recently for an interview conducted in his native Swahili. “They came to me with machetes.”
A U.S. charity is now helping Baraka and four other albino children escape the threat, at least temporarily, by bringing them stateside. The Global Medical Relief Fund, started in 1997 by Elissa Montanti, helps children from crisis zones who have lost limbs get custom prostheses.
Montanti, moved by an article she read about Baraka, reached out to Under the Same Sun, a Canada-based 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 1 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 flesh-colored 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-year-old Kabula Nkarango Masanja, told the AP in an interview conducted in Swahili 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, who used his remaining left hand to toss a ball through a basketball hoop while red arm floaties kept him above water.
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.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5