Africa’s albinos seek their place in the sun

Updated on
The World

BOSTON — Up two flights of stairs in a musty apartment in central Madrid is where an African man with a face as white as chalk has placed his hope for the future.

In early April, 18-year-old Moszy came ashore in the Spanish Canary Islands, along with 59 other African refugees. He stood out among a sea of black faces waiting in line that day to be processed by immigration officials. He is an albino, a person with a congenital lack of the melanin pigment that protects the skin, eyes and hair from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Albinism is a condition that makes life in much of Africa miserable for many reasons, said Javier Ramirez, a human rights lawyer with the Spanish Commission for Refugees or CEAR, which is representing Moszy.

“Albinos suffer violence and also they face huge discrimination in their countries of origin,” said Ramirez.

“That’s ’cause there’s still a lot of ignorance,” said Thabo Leshilo, editor of the South African newspaper, The Sowetan, which has reported on human rights abuses against albinos in southern Africa. “People still believe, for example, that people with albinism don’t die. That they actually disappear and don’t get buried.” Leshilo said it is the de-humanization of people with albinism that makes it possible for some to kill them without remorse. Over the past 19 months, 62 ritualistic murders have occurred in Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya in which albinos were killed to sell their body parts. Four albinos, including a 4-year old, were murdered in July. The buyers are traditional healers who say they can concoct powerful potions with so-called albino magic that businessmen and others believe will bolster their fortunes.

Around Lake Victoria in northern Tanzania, fish stocks have dwindled in recent years. In response, many fishermen now weave albino hairs in their nets — believing that by doing so they will increase their daily catch of fish.

The right leg from an albino can sell for $2,000 and an arm about $800, according to an investigative report by a BBC team.

In a recent incident in Ruyigi, Burundi, according to Al Jazeera, a young albino man was reportedly killed and chopped up by his older non-albino brother, who sold his body parts for $240 before escaping to Tanzania. As of this writing, he has not been captured.

Rick Guidotti, a former New York fashion photographer turned human rights activist, was recently in East Africa on a fact-finding mission for his organization, Positive Exposure. He fears that the attacks on albinos could escalate as economic conditions worsen in the region. He said that in the area of Ruyigi, Burundi, for instance, the average yearly salary is $10.

“So when there’s an opportunity to feed 10 children when you bring the bones of one child with albinism, it’s greed but it’s also survival,” said Guidotti. “And it’s only going to get worse until people stand up and start prosecuting those that are suspected of these horrifying crimes.”

That may finally be happening. Last month in Burundi nine men were convicted of crimes linked to the abduction and murder of people with albinism and sentenced from one year to life in prison. In neighboring Tanzania there have been hundreds of arrests for the killings of albinos, but so far no convictions.

Now, in the beginning of August, the trials of four of seven suspected killers of albinos have been suspended by the courts in two districts, according to reports, because funds have dried up. Still, Tanzanian government officials insist that they are moving as fast as possible to prosecute those responsible, but not fast enough for Peter Ash. He is monitoring the situation from his office in Vancouver, Canada. For him it’s personal: He is an albino.

On one recent visit to Tanzania, Ash said he was standing on a corner when young men taunted him with chants of “Deal, deal,” suggesting that by killing him they could cash in on his body parts. For that reason Ash now travels in Tanzania with his own security.

“If I was born in Tanzania, my life would be in danger, because I have exactly the same genetic disorder as they do, and I can’t sit by and do nothing,” said Ash. Two years ago he founded Under The Same Sun, a Canadian charity to assist Tanzania’s albinos, who number nearly 200,000 out of a total population of 40 million. Under The Same Sun recently opened an office in the capital, Dar as Salaam.

Ash has also focused on the albino asylum case in Spain, where human rights attorney Ramirez faces an uphill battle in proving Moszy’s fear of persecution if returned to Benin.

“While we don’t have tons of details on Benin, I can tell you that throughout the whole area of Africa, beliefs exist that people with albinism are cursed,” said Ash.

Education is the key to reducing the superstitions against albinos, said Al-Shaymaa J. Kwegyir, a former airline employee who last year became the first person with albinism to sit in Tanzania’s parliament. “The president appointed me, so as to help albinos and trying to educate people about the albinos that they’re human beings. They need equal rights like everybody else,” said Kwegyir.

In other parts of the world, albinos are viewed quite differently. A group of islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama is home to the Kuna, an indigenous people of whom one in 200 is an albino. The Kuna believe that albinos are children of the moon and are godlike.

“Obviously I would prefer that to having them killed,” said Ash, "but I would most prefer that they be treated like anyone else.”

The best possible outcome for people with albinism said Ash is to eradicate mythology of all sorts about people who suffer a disease that makes them both vulnerable to the sun and to the prejudices of millions.

Phillip Martin is executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions, a non-profit public radio journalism company dedicated to exploring issues that divide society. Currently he is heading up the Color Initiative, an on-going radio-journalism project on PRI’s The World that is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Funding Exchange (Paul Robeson Fund).

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?