Thursday, 14 April 2016 15:10

TANZANIA: Trade in Albino Body Parts Shocking!

1 April 2016 - Melissa Stanford is 14 years old and dreams of becoming a lawyer. The sixth-grade student lives at a residential school run by the Our Lady of Kilimanjaro Sisters in northern Tanzania, where she is at the top of her class and helps the sisters take care of the younger students, some of whom have physical disabilities.

She is quiet and polite with strangers and compassionate with the younger children. She speaks excellent English in addition to Swahili and her tribal language. She knows her pursuit of becoming a lawyer is a challenging path for any female from rural Tanzania.

But Melissa does not look like most Tanzanians. She was born with albinism, a genetic mutation that means the body is unable to produce pigment or melanin in the skin, hair or eyes. For unknown reasons, the condition is 20 times more prevalent in her region of Tanzania than in North America and Europe.

And due to a lack of education, it is shrouded in mystery and superstition in Tanzania and surrounding countries, leaving people with albinism particularly vulnerable to attacks. Local traditions in some parts of Africa hold that body parts of people with albinism have magical properties that can make people rich. Witch doctors, who use the body parts in potions, have created a gruesome trade in which albino limbs can fetch thousands on the black market.

Since 2006, 164 people have been murdered and 264 maimed, according to Under the Same Sun, an advocacy organization for people with albinism based in Canada and Tanzania that tracks these cases.

Many more attacks go unreported. "There have been beliefs since our grandfathers' time that people with albinism are ghosts, that people with albinism are not human beings," said Perpetua "Perry" Senkoro, a lawyer who has albinism and works at Under the Same Sun in Tanzania.

"(They think) people with albinism do not die, they disappear. If I chop off their hand or their leg and bring it to a witch doctor and he does that voodoo stuff, I can get rich." Melissa understands the horror personally.

In 2008, when she was 7 years old, two men broke into her family's house to attack her sister, Mariamu, who was 28 and also has albinism. They used a machete to chop off both of her arms.

It took Mariamu seven hours to get medical attention, but she survived. Since then, both sisters have received protection and care through the Our Lady sisters and Under the Same Sun. Activists and widespread media attention have shed light on the practice in a mission to change superstitious notions about people with albinism.

A documentary called "The Boy From Geita," about Adam, a young boy with albinism who survived a vicious attack at his home in the same district as Melissa, was recently nominated for five awards, including the 2015 Director's Guild of Canada award for best documentary. The film also follows Mariamu Stanford's story. In North America and Europe, about 1 in every 20,000 people have some form of albinism.

In Tanzania, about 1 in 1,400 people have the condition. Experts are not certain why the incidence is so much higher in Tanzania, especially in the north western part of the country near Lake Victoria, where Melissa is from and where the likelihood of albinism is 1 in 1,000.

People with albinism have pale white skin that burns easily in the sun. In addition to the threat of attacks, they often struggle with physical challenges such as low vision and skin cancer. In Tanzania, 90 percent of those with the condition contract skin cancer by the time they are 30, according to Under the Same Sun.

Due to lack of access to medical care, many of the cases are fatal. People with albinism are at risk from witchcraft in 25 countries in Africa, including Kenya, Malawi, Burundi, Egypt and Mozambique.

According to a 2009 report from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the body of a person with albinism can command as much as $75,000 on the black market. Limbs can cost thousands of dollars.

The gross national income per person in Tanzania is $920 per year. Many of these grotesque crimes are reported in Tanzania, with 159 attacks and 76 killings since 2006. "It's not just in Tanzania; it's all over Africa.

It's just that in other countries people don't speak about it so it's not widely known," said Senkoro, citing better press freedom and field research as factors in Tanzania's higher and more accurate data.

After the attack on her sister, Melissa fled her family's home and has never returned. A social worker brought her to the St. Francis School in Moshi, where Under the Same Sun sponsors her tuition.

The Our Lady Sisters also housed and assisted Mariamu during part of her rehabilitation. Mariamu attended a vocational school in Moshi and learned how to knit sweaters using two prostheses. She now lives in Dar es Salaam, while Melissa stayed in Moshi. "I want to become a lawyer after I finish secondary school, because I want to study security laws to protect albinos," Melissa said.

"I want to tell people not to believe in witchcraft, but it is not so easy to change their minds." The St. Francis of Assisi School for the Abled and Disabled, run by the Our Lady of Kilimanjaro Sisters, is located in a pastoral village on the highway from Arusha to Moshi, the popular tourism destination that is the jump off point for treks to Mount Kilimanjaro or safaris in the Serengeti National Park.

The school has 268 students, 42 of whom have albinism and issues with low vision. Other students have disabilities, including deafness, total blindness and birth defects, and some have no disabilities but are orphans or children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The school puts an emphasis on teaching all the children together. "When we are inclusive, it helps the children because there's interaction," said Sister Mary Benedicta Mosha, the director of St. Francis. "When they're studying alone, they feel inferiority. They think, 'Well, I can't see, so I won't work, I'll just wait for someone to help me.'

But here, they go together, they play together, and they help each other." The residential school offers a solution to children with albinism who were not attending school. Some were the victims of attacks or had family members who were attacked.

Others were kept home purposefully because the parents were ashamed or scared. Even at the school, the students with albinism are still at risk for kidnapping or attacks.

"Here there is a problem with security, the fence is not high enough, people can just jump over it," said Mosha. "So we take turns -- nuns, teachers, caretakers -- to sleep outside to make sure that the albinos are safe. Mosha knows that it's not really about building a better wall, which is only a short-term solution.

The real mission is to change people's perceptions. Peter Ash, a Canadian pastor and real estate entrepreneur who also has albinism, founded Under the Same Sun in 2009.

The organization aims to bring the issue of attacks against people with albinism to wider attention in Tanzania and around the world. One approach is through sponsored TV commercials and radio spots in Tanzania, featuring people with albinism talking about their lives and fears.

But the thrust of their advocacy is done in the most remote parts of the country, going village by village to explain what causes albinism. The discrimination stems from the fact that few people understand what causes the condition, they say.

Albinism is a genetic mutation that happens when both parents are carriers of the albinism trait. If parents have normal pigmentation but both carry the recessive gene, the child has a 25 percent chance of having albinism.

Under the Same Sun visits a different region of Tanzania every three months, traveling to at least 10 villages and making presentations for 500 to 3,000 people. The seminars combat misinformation, such as the belief that if you rape a person with albinism, you'll be cured of AIDS.

Source: Tanzania Daily News (AllAfrica.com)

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