While many Westerners think of witches and witchcraft as being relics of the Middle Ages (or relegated to modern tourist traps in Salem, Massachusetts), in many countries belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered part of everyday life.
In Africa, witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing curses on rivals (or removing curses placed by rivals). Magic (or at least the belief in magic) is used for personal, political and financial gain.
America, of course, has its own version of witch doctors: the thousands of independent fortunetellers and psychic soothsayers with hole-in-the-wall shops occasionally arrested for scamming desperate or gullible customers. (Their victims are often led to believe that a curse has been placed upon them and that it can be removed with a generous "donation.") While fortunetellers usually do only financial and emotional harm, belief in black magic has led to dozens of murders.
In Tanzania, East Africa, at least 50 albinos (people with a rare genetic disorder that leaves the skin, hair, and eyes without pigment) were murdered for their body parts last year, according to the Red Cross. An albino's arms, fingers, genitals, ears, and blood are highly prized on the black market, believed to contain magical powers. People with albinism anywhere often stand out because of their distinctive features; in a continent of dark-skinned Africans, albinos are often the subject of fear, hatred, and ridicule.
The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti. (Science fiction fans may recall that muti was featured in the hit South African film "District 9," in which the hero's body parts were sought after by a local warlord who believed that the limbs would give him magical powers. That horrific scene was based in fact, not the screenwriter's imagination.)
The muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their screaming victims—including children. Many of the albinos were beheaded, their heads carefully collected and preserved as gruesome good luck charms or for use in rituals.
While many suspects have been arrested for carrying out the albino murders, so far the persons who commissioned the killings (or offered huge sums for human body parts) have not been arrested. Some believe that because belief in witchcraft and muti is so accepted and widespread in East Africa, police, politicians, and judges are hesitant to pursue the criminals too vigorously. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of African albinos live in fear of their lives, shunned and hated because of the color of their skin. To those who believe in science, albinism is merely a rare medical condition; to those who believe in witchcraft and magic, it is a reason to murder and mutilate the innocent.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.