Different cultures around the world have developed many beliefs regarding people with albinism.
Some African communities believe that albinos are harbingers of disaster, while others mistakenly think albinos are mentally retarded and discourage their parents from taking them to school, saying it’s a waste of money. “Albinism is one of the most unfortunate vulnerabilities,” said International Federation for the Red Cross and Crescent societies Secretary General, Bekele Geleta. “And it needs to be addressed immediately at an international level.”
Albinism in humans is commonly characterized physically with visual problems and need for sun protection. This is due to incomplete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of tyrosine’s, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Albinism results from inheritance of recessive gene alleles and is known to affect all vertebrates, including humans. Other challenges include social and cultural challenges/threats inhibited by ridicule, discrimination, or even fear and violence.
African albinos endure segregation and threat throughout their lives. In some communities they even kill them after birth to avoid discrimination. They also have a high risk of contracting skin cancer in a region where many jobs are outdoors. In some African countries such as Tanzania and Burundi,there has been an unprecedented rise in witchcraft-related killings of albino people in recent years, because their body parts are used in potions sold by witchdoctors or black magic practitioners and this sees them often fall prey to human traffickers. Numerous authenticated incidents have occurred in Africa during the 21st Century. Another harmful and false belief is that sex with an albinistic woman will cure a man of HIV. This has led, for example in Zimbabwe, to rapes (and subsequent HIV infection).
The blindness in people’s eyes on albinism is very visible. Professor Samuel Dombo, who teaches at the Kigali Institute of Education, has a PHD in linguistics from Reading University in Britain is an albino who has is happily married with seven children. Though he recounts his early childhood days as not being smooth and challenging especially with discrimination, this did not deter him from striving for his rights and education. He recounts that being brought up in Congo where the society cares less of the situation unlike Rwanda where people look down upon him, stare and that makes one feel out of place he reports but this instead made him proper and still does. From Banking halls, public transports systems, churches, supermarkets and other publics places is it very visible that people don’t appreciate albinism as normal but an estranged deformity. But he is encouraged by one thing, that after people get to know him better they change and become nice to him.
In Swaziland two cases have so far been reported of two young children who have been prey to the murders as reported by The Times of Swaziland. Read: New albino killings in East Africa Read: Albino killer sentenced to death
In Nairobi, Kenya — Mary Owido, who lacks pigment that gives color to skin, eyes and hair, recalls her ordeals and says she is only comfortable when at work or at home with her husband and children. She is among some of those who were forced to transfer and change jobs and locations due to fear of their lives. The chairman of the Albino Association of Kenya, Isaac Mwaura, emphasizes that the killings experienced in different parts of Africa have given albinos a platform to raise awareness. Almost 90 percent of albinos living in most African regions were raised by single mothers, because the fathers believed their wives were having affairs with white men. A Vancouver-based NGO reported that a toll of albino murders was 57 in Tanzania, others still remain uncounted for in other countries.
It is scrumptiously sad to note that out of 63 reported cases in Tanzania a mere two have been apprehended to conviction in a spin of two years. While in Burundi 12 out of the 14 cases have been successfully apprehended. Police in Tanzanian estimates the value to be £50,000 at which witch doctors acquire a complete set of albino parts. With a country that has about 15,000 albinos, whose total population estimates is 35 million some 8,000 are registered with the Albino society. The annual Professional Social Work Conference started on Tuesday 16th October, 2012 in Dar es Salaam with social work and rights of people with albinism (PWA) high on the agenda. Due to a lack of education, many albinos are illiterate and are forced into menial jobs, exposing them to the sun and skin cancer. Those who manage to finish school face discrimination in the work place and are never considered for promotions. The emphasis should be laid on changing people’s attitude to them and how best they can be protected from being prey to human traffickers.
Morris Mbatia. (0787 046 575)
Freelance journalist – East Africa.