Albinism in Tanzania
Albinism, a rare congenital disorder that presents itself in the form of a partial or complete absence of melanin production, results in pigment-less eyes, hair and skin. An estimated 1 in every 17,000 to 20,000 people in North America and Europe live with albinism. However, cases of albinism in Tanzania and the African continent, with 1 in every 5,000 to 15,000 people, appear with more prevalence.

The majority of cases are seen in the East African country of Tanzania. Under the Same Sun (UTSS), an organization committed to assuring the rights of people with albinism, report a prevalence of 1 in 1,400 cases of albinism and 1 in 19 cases of carriers, meaning there are over 33,000 persons with albinism in Tanzania alone.

This population lives under constant threat, as people with albinism face slaughter and dismemberment. Their body parts, suspected to bring luck or riches, are used in witchcraft. A full “set” of body parts, four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose, can bring the seller upwards of $75,000 in the black market.

There have been eight reported cases of mutilation in Tanzania since autumn 2015. More than 200 similar cases were reported to the United Nations from 2000 to 2013.

In a May 13, 2015 interview with The Guardian, Don Sawatzky, director of operations at UTSS, states that no one really knows the exact source of these killings. Since the documentation was not as historically prevalent in Africa. However, many still connect the rise in deaths to the 2015 elections, placing blame on politicians who allegedly seek out “seers” who use albino body parts to predict the future. Others point to the rise in food prices as the cause, leaving many desperate to make money with no regard for consequence.

Recent collaborative efforts between the Tanzanian government, civil society and nongovernmental organizations have proved beneficial. The community’s perception of people with albinism is slowly changing. Additionally, cases in which people with albinism were killed are now being taken seriously, and the government has begun to prosecute and convict those responsible.

At the community level, these changes will not come about easily, but with the international community’s backing and advocacy, this shift in perception has greater potential.

On June 13, 2013, the United Nations adopted the first resolution in its history on albinism, guaranteeing the rights and acknowledging the plight and discrimination of those who live with albinism. More recently, with the help of UTSS, the United Nations welcomed the observance of June 13 as International Albinism Awareness Day to be celebrated for the first time in 2015.

Many remain hopeful that violence against people with albinism will one day be nonexistent. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, affirmed that “people with albinism are just as deserving of dignity as every other human being.” He adds, “They have the right to live free from discrimination, deprivation and fear.”

– Jaime Longoria

Sources: The GuardianWashington Post
Photo: The Telegraph

United Kingdom native, Harry Freeland was inspired to spread awareness of  albinism through a film documentary after his first encounter with the condition in Senegal. “A woman approached me in the street, held out her [albino] child and said ‘here, take it back, where it comes from.’ [B]ecause I’m white, she thought the child belonged to me in some way–her husband had left her for having a white child and accused her of sleeping with a white man,” said Freeland.

Albinism, a total lack of pigmentation in hair, skin and eyes, can affect people of every race, but is particularly prevalent in Tanzania and throughout East Africa, where it’s estimated that one in every 2,000 people are affected with it. The condition is passed to a child when both parents carry the gene, regardless of whether the parents have albinism themselves.

The real danger for those with albinism isn’t their heightened vulnerability to the sun, but the stigma that still exists concerning the potentially magical qualities of their body parts in potions and rituals performed by witch doctors. The miseducation and superstition surrounding individuals with Albinism has created a horrific market for their body parts in Eastern Africa. Many regions still believe that spells done with an albino’s hand, foot, breast or genitals will result in great wealth or miraculous healing.

Men with HIV/AIDS have been known to rape albino girls in the hope of curing their disease, and children with albinism are regularly kept home from school for fear that they will be attacked during their walk. Mothers are regularly blamed of sleeping with white men or devils to have produced a white baby, and many women prefer to kill or abandon their albino children rather than face the hardship of living with them.

Freeland’s film, “In the Shadow of the Sun”, follows Josephat Torner, a man with albinism, who has spent his life trying to break through the social stigmas surrounding his condition. Despite faces immense social injustice, Torner received his education, started a family, and climbed Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro.

Torner and Freeland believe in fighting the mythologies of albinism by demonstrating to people the truth of the condition. The education and integration of albino children into society as working citizens, as well as the punishing of those who hunt them, is the only way to eradicate this dehumanizing practice.

– Lydia Caswell

Sources: Vice, CNN, UN News Center
Photo: National Geographic