Life is hard for albinos throughout Africa, but especially in the East African nation of Tanzania. At best, they face raw prejudice; at worst, they are hunted for their flesh, the results of superstitious beliefs.
Albino killings have been reported in a dozen African countries from South Africa to Kenya, but they are more in Tanzania than anywhere else.
More than 100 albinos have been violently attacked in Tanzania from 2006 to June of this year — 71 died and 31 escaped, though most were maimed. The attacks are so brazen that the government has opened boarding schools for albino children for their own protection.
“In society, there are people such as witch doctors who look for body parts; people will kill albinos to make magic,” says Isaac Timothy, an albino activist in the gold-mining town of Geita, where belief in witchcraft is widespread.
“When you bring [a witch doctor] a body part, such as an arm, a leg or a finger, the witch doctor will make a potion with it,” Timothy says. “A miner will pour it in the ground where he wants to find minerals or a fisherman will pour it in his canoe.”
On the southern shore of Lake Victoria, a fisherman in a baseball cap and ragged pants, who doesn’t want to give his name, looks up from digging worms.
“I don’t believe albino body parts are useful to catch fish,” he says, leaning on his spade, “but other people use albinos to catch more fish and become rich. Wherever I throw my net is good enough for me.”
A World Of Prejudice And Misunderstanding
In the tourist town of Arusha at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, a street preacher’s sermon mixes with the smell of dried fish in the crowded central market. An albino shopkeeper named Godfred Tarimo tends to his grocery stall.
He says belief in the magical powers of albino flesh is so pervasive that when he walks in public it’s not uncommon to hear someone wisecrack, “There goes a deal, there goes something valuable.”
“I worry about my safety,” he says, glancing at the shoppers.
Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world — nearly 1 in every 1,400 people. That compares to about 1 in 20,000 worldwide.
There appears to be at least a couple reasons for this phenomenon. First, there is the “founders effect.” Scientists believe Tanzania and East Africa may be the birthplace of the genetic mutation that creates albinism.
Second, because of discrimination and social exclusion people with albinism tend to marry each other, which greatly increases the likelihood that the offspring will also be albinos.
Tanzania’s gruesome albino murders tend to attract the most attention — such as a recent documentary, Spell of the Albino, by filmmaker Claudio von Planta. In fact, the number of albino murders are decreasing in Tanzania because of all the publicity and the government’s stern warnings that they must stop.
But African albinos still grow up in a world of prejudice and misunderstanding.
Many people don’t understand, for instance, that albinos must protect their pale skin with long sleeves, hats and sunscreen to avoid skin cancer, which kills 98 percent of Tanzanian albinos before they reach their 40th birthday, according to figures provided by Under the Same Sun, an advocacy group in Dar es Salaam.
And in class, teachers are often unaware that albinos have impaired vision that prevents them from reading a blackboard like other children, so albino students often fall behind in school.
A common belief is that albinos don’t die, they vanish like ghosts, says Grace Wabanhu, a 26-year-old albino from northern Tanzania who works for the organization.
Other questions she’s heard: Is it true that if I have a disease and I have sex with an albino my illness will be cured? If I touch you, is albinism contagious? Do you feel pain?
“People didn’t know what is albinism. But after explaining to them they came to think, ‘Hah, this is normal person like others,’ ” Wabanhu says. “So it’s because of ignorance. People don’t know.”
Slow Progress On Dispelling Stigmas
The education process is slow, says Vicky Ntetema, Tanzania executive director of Under the Same Sun, which is based in Vancouver, Canada. A former BBC journalist, Ntetema did ground-breaking reporting on the persecution of albinos.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult for every Tanzanian all of a sudden to forget about the myths and then believe that persons with albinism are human beings,” she says.
Al-Shaymaa Kwegyir is one of two albino members of parliament in Tanzania.
“It’s a problem. To be an albino is a problem,” she says.
Kwegyir represents people with disabilities. With her red headscarf and orange fingernails, she is one of the most visible and successful persons with albinism in the country.
“I’m trying to talk in Parliament on behalf of them,” she says. “I talk with the minister of education, I talk with the minister of health to try and explain to them how tough it is to be an albino.”
There are signs of progress.
The Tanzania Ministry of Education has provided an introduction to albinism to public-school teachers and college professors. And last year, the International League of Dermatological Societies and the drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline started providing wide-brim hats and sunscreen to albinos in East Africa.
The stigma of albinism, though, will take longer to dispel.