Baraka Cosmas, 7, is missing half his right arm. Mwigulu Matonange, 14, lost his left arm. Emmanuel Festo, 15, lost his right, plus the fingers of his left hand. Pendo Sengerema, 16, had an arm severed at the elbow.
These youngsters from Tanzania are not limbless by accident or through some genetic glitch. Their amputations were the work of human hunters with machetes who believed children with albinism — born without pigment instead of the brown skin of their families — are ghosts who bring good luck if their body parts are ritually sacrificed.
The ghastly tradition, which still persists in isolated, rural areas of Tanzania, is to hack off the children’s limbs and to turn the pieces into “good luck” potions for witchcraft rituals. Attackers who stole into Emmanuel’s village at night even tried to pull out his tongue and teeth.
The four youths are part of a group of victims who have been getting treatment and free prosthetic limbs in the U.S. since 2015. This spring, they returned for about two months to get replacement prostheses from Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia to accommodate their growing bodies.
During their trips to the U.S., they stay in New York City under the care of Elissa Montanti and sponsored by her Global Medical Relief Fund. The nonprofit helps children from crisis zones get cost-free prostheses.
In this latest phase of their journey, the children seemed more self-assured and gregarious after living in Tanzanian safe houses funded by the Canadian charity Under the Same Sun.
Two years ago in New York, knowing no English, they kept to themselves and had to be coaxed to speak to visitors through a translator.
Mwigulu said his replacement limb helped him gain confidence.
“I was feeling a bit bad that I have only one hand and others have both hands,” he said. He’s estranged from his parents, partly because authorities suspect his father may have been complicit in the attack.
Pendo said fitting in with other Tanzanians has become less painful. When she wears her prosthesis, “it’s not easy for another person to discover that I have one arm. It looks like I have both arms until someone comes close.”
As they prepared to leave the U.S. this month to head back to Tanzania with their new limbs, the kids gathered around a Staten Island table for a meal cooked by an American friend.
Emmanuel used a metal hook attached to his arm to handle the cutlery and food. A broad smile filled his face as he chatted with dinner companions.
Though he’ll never forget that attackers “cut off my arm and cut my face and teeth … God turned it around and put people in my life that have brought joy and put a new mark in my life.”
During their 10 weeks in New York, Baraka, the 7-year-old, began to learn to play tunes on the piano with one hand, taught by Ahmed Shareef, 20, who lost his right hand as a child during fighting in Iraq and also got his prosthesis through the Global Medical Relief Fund.
The boy returned to Tanzania with a gift from Shareef: an electronic keyboard.
Since Tanzania’s government outlawed witch doctors three years ago, hundreds have been arrested in killings of people with albinism.
Baraka, Emmanuel, Pendo and Mwigulu have learned to push away their own unimaginable traumas and to live, even thrive.
At 16, Pendo hopes to become a teacher of Swahili, English and math.
Mwigulu’s pipe dream is to be Tanzania’s president. “I will stand for the rights of people with albinism,” he declared.
And Baraka wants to be a doctor.
By JULIE JACOBSON and VERENA DOBNIK, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Global Medical Relief Fund: http://www.gmrfchildren.org