Children's Health

1st of Tanzanian Albino kids with missing limbs goes home

Elissa Montanti, founder and director of the Global Medical Relief Fund, center, places a hand on Pendo Sengerema Noni, right, as Kabula Nkarango Masanja, left, looks on during a prosthetic limb fitting, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Elissa Montanti, founder and director of the Global Medical Relief Fund, center, places a hand on Pendo Sengerema Noni, right, as Kabula Nkarango Masanja, left, looks on during a prosthetic limb fitting, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Kabula Nkarango Masanja returned home to Tanzania with a new American prosthetic arm replacing the limb that was chopped off with a machete by followers of African witchcraft.

She's one of Tanzania's children with albinism, a condition that leaves people with little or no pigment in their skin, hair or eyes. Their severed body parts are used in potions witch doctors believe bring wealth and good luck. The soft-spoken 17-year-old Kabula is now one of the lucky ones.

Doctors at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia recently created new artificial limbs for Kabula and four other youngsters. And New York City resident Elissa Montanti provided housing about two hours away in the borough of Staten Island and organized all their daily, medical and travel needs.

Kabula boarded a plane Tuesday at Kennedy Airport, heading to Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam. She'd been in the United States since June with the four other children, ages 5 to 15, who also were fitted with prosthetics.

"God be with you till we meet again," she wrote neatly on a piece of paper left for Montanti and the Global Medical Relief Fund, the charity she founded.

Montanti, who lives up the street from the charity's "Dare to Dream" house, has spent years flying in children missing limbs from dozens of crisis zones including Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

"But I have never, ever been so pained as watching these children," says the 62-year-old former radiation technician.

While the 200 or so youths Montanti has helped were victims of land mines, earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters, "this is deliberate" she said of the witchcraft victims.

Lacking natural pigmentation, people with albinism look almost white - ghosts of departed humans, according to witch doctors who order body parts to be hacked off: hair, nails, teeth, tongues, hands, feet, even genitals. More than 200 witch doctors have been arrested so far in the killings of Tanzanians with albinism. The government outlawed witch doctors last year.

Still, attacks continue; at least eight were recorded in Tanzania in the past year.

There's another, even more cruel twist.

Some parents are collaborators because "they still believe their children are cursed," says Ester Rwela, a social worker who accompanies the children and translates their Swahili language.

The father of 5-year-old Baraka Cosmas Lusambo was arrested after part of the little boy's right arm was sliced off last March amid ear-piercing screams.

Tanzanian diamond dealers, businessmen and politicians have paid as much as $75,000 to hunt albino people, says Rwela. "Elections are high season for the witch doctors," she says. "And people with albinism live in fear."

But the kids' lives aren't consumed by the monstrosities.

"Guess what? They're still capable of loving," says Montanti, who constantly holds their hands and hugs them.

They sing in a van that takes them to Philadelphia to fine-tune the prostheses and learn to use them.

Emmanuel Festo Rutema, a 13-year-old missing his left arm and several fingers on his right hand, also goes to a dentist to replace the front teeth knocked out as a witchcraft prize. Attackers tried to cut out his tongue but only damaged it.

On a summer afternoon in the Staten Island home, the rooms are alive with laughter.

"Baraka Obama!"

That's the nickname his friends jokingly call the small boy. He cracks a shy smile, adding, "I don't know who Obama is."

On the sofa, Emmanuel is playing cards with 12-year-old Mwigulu Matonange Magesa, who's wearing a hooked extension of his left arm to pick up the cards. It's an easier tool than the prosthetic hand he hasn't yet mastered.

Kabula is studying for the school exam she faces after returning to Dar es Salaam, where she and the other four have been living in a "safe house" far from their impoverished villages.

"God says forgive your enemies, but as a human being, I cannot forgive them, because they can do this again," says the teen, whose right arm was cut off to the armpit.

She wants to become a human rights lawyer.

At Kennedy, Kabula wiped tears from her eyes, crestfallen at the prospect of leaving her friends and the safety of New York.

"But I told her, `this is not the end, it's only a bright new beginning,'" says Montanti.

The other children are leaving in late September. And they'll be back next year for new prostheses matching their growth.