People with albinism have long suffered from misconceptions and vilification in Tanzania, sometimes with deadly consequences. According to the last population census, as many as 1 in 1,400 people in Tanzania are estimated to have albinism.
Ordinarily, people with albinism are impaired physically because their skin, eyes and hair lack melanin – the pigment which determines skin colour and prevents ultraviolet rays from damaging DNA and vision, potentially causing skin cancer. In a context like Tanzania, heat damage can be severe from an early age, particularly as limited awareness around the use of sunscreen and the high cost of these products mean that they are not widely accessible. As the majority of people with albinism are technically blind and very sensitive to light, this limited vision often meets the criteria of a disability and in most cases prevents full social participation of people with albinism on an equal basis with others.
However, in Tanzania these physical challenges of albinism are compounded by negative social prejudice surrounding the condition, further obstructing their ability to participate fully and effectively in public life. In some cases, people with albinism have been victims of ritual murders. This grisly practice, rooted in widespread superstitions that the body parts of people with albinism have magical powers, is thought to have claimed around 80 lives since 2000, with many others subjected to violent attacks. The majority of victims are children. According to the UN, ritual attacks against the community have been fuelled by fortune seekers, with victims kidnapped and their bodies dismembered by hired killers. Tanzania’s northern regions have reported the most attacks, abductions and murders.
For instance, in February 2015, the mutilated remains of Yohana Bahati, a one-year-old baby boy with albinism, was discovered in Shilabela Mapinduzi Sub-Village, a few kilometres from his home in Isabilo Sub-Village of Ilelema Village, Iparamasa Ward of Chato District, Geita Region. Both of Yohana’s arms and legs had been hacked off. Five unidentified men armed with machetes had seized him after attacking the boy’s mother who was slashed on her face and body.
Despite the government’s ban on witch doctors – the suspected culprits in many attacks – people with albinism continue to live in fear and suffer deep-seated prejudice throughout their lives. School dropout is high among children with albinism, with only half of the children able to complete primary education and just 1 in 10 transitioning to secondary school. Similarly, many families of children with albinism are unable to enrol them in school because they fear that walking to and from school would expose them to abductions. Still, those enrolled in school are not able to access assistive devices such as magnifiers and enlarged printed materials to support their low vision.
Temporary safe shelters and other special boarding schools that had been opened in high-risk areas have themselves been criticized for denying children an authentic family environment and the opportunity to feel included in their communities by learning with their peers (without albinism) and to feel included in their communities. Assessments of the shelters have also revealed overcrowding, unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, low teacher-to-student ratios and a lack of staff awareness of the specific medical needs and appropriate low-vision accommodations for people with albinism.
Another serious concern is that most children with albinism experience severe sun-damaged skin at an early age and fatal skin cancer claims the vast majority before age 30 to 40. Although sun protecting skin creams are commercially available, they are largely out of reach for most of the community, due in large part to heavy taxes and hidden access fees. After visiting Tanzania in 2017, the United Nations Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, Ikponwosa Ero, declared that skin cancer, rather than attacks (by human traffickers), was one of the biggest threats to the lives of people with albinism.
Although digital platforms and mobile technologies have grown exponentially in Africa, thereby expanding the limits of human interactions, this is not necessarily the case for people with albinism. The abuse, name calling and harassment that they experience on the streets have followed them online. Nevertheless, there have also been some examples of successful artists and musicians with albinism who have been able to exploit social media to promote positive awareness among other Tanzanians.
The Tanzanian government has taken some steps to improve protections and inclusion for people with albinism in recent years, including the adoption of the Regional Action Plan on Albinism in Africa, developed by East African governments. But until the long-standing myths around albinism are successfully dismantled, a caring environment created and equal opportunities extended to all, people with albinism in Tanzania will remain disproportionately exposed to violence, poor health outcomes and other human rights violations.
Updated December 2020
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