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In Tanzania, Where Albino Children Are Targeted by Witch Doctors, One School is Keeping Them Safe

In an overcrowded school in northern Tanzania, hundreds of albino children have found a safe haven from a culture that perceives them as demons or ghosts.

In an overcrowded school in northern Tanzania, hundreds of albino children have found a safe haven from a culture that perceives them as demons or ghosts.

Albinism is a genetic condition that affects only one in 20,000 people worldwide, but it is far more common in Tanzania, where the rate rises to about 1 in 1,400. People with albinism do not produce pigment in their skin, hair, or eyes, which gives them a distinctive physical appearance, makes them sensitive to the sun, and in some cases results in visual impairment. Martin Haule, the head of educational projects at Under the Same Sun, a Canadian charity that aids albinos, explains that their marginalization runs deep in Tanzanian culture:

Even people who have albinism do not understand that it’s just about the skin. They too believe they are somehow not fully human.

According to a feature in The Telegraph, parents of albinos often abandon their children, fearing for their kids’ lives as well as their own. Practitioners of traditional medicine — which other Tanzanians refer to derisively as “witch doctors” — believe that albinos’ bodies have magical powers. A full set of albino body parts can fetch $75,000 on the black market.

Murders and maimings of albinos are so frequent in Tanzania that administrators at facilities like Buhangija, the school spotlighted in the Telegraph article, worry about the immense street value of the children who live there. Buhangija, which was originally designed as a school for blind and deaf children, now houses almost 300 albino children and young adults.

Located in Shinyanga, a small city about a hundred miles south of Lake Victoria, Buhangija struggles to feed and house the children. Several school buildings have been converted into makeshift dormitories, where children sleep three or four to a bed. Most parents never return to visit their children, leaving them traumatized and starved for affection. But the biggest problem is a disorganized government that doesn’t consistently provide for the children’s basic needs. Peter Ajali, Buhangija’s head teacher, explains:

The biggest challenge for us is food. Our government is a government where we don’t have a good support for that, for food. And the food which we have always depends on good Samaritans.

Fortunately, Tanzanian albinos’ struggles have received increased attention in both local and international press. The Tanzania Daily News reported last week that one of the country’s major telecommunications companies, Zantel, had made a high-profile donation toward albino education and welfare. Newspapers elsewhere in Africa, such as Nigeria’s left-leaning The Guardian, have praised Tanzania for recent efforts to combat violence against albinos, such as the arrest of 225 traditional healers earlier this year.

But what’s really changing — and what should instill hope in Tanzanian albinos as well as their families and caretakers — is the cultural perception of them. The nation’s current President, Jakaya Kikwete, has referred to their persecution as an “ongoing evil,” and one of his challengers in the country’s upcoming election, January Makamba, has also called for reform, saying, “These are deep-seated beliefs and we must confront them as a nation.”

Leaders and activists seem to agree that the key instrument for change is education — either by urging Tanzanians to see beliefs in the magical powers of albinos’ bodies as backward and shameful, or by convincing them that murdering and mutilating their neighbors is inhumane.

(Image via the National Post. Thanks to Stephen for the link)

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