FRANCK VOGEL | Zeru, Zeru: Being Albino in Tanzania

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AROUND LAKE VICTORIA, Tanzania, evil acts are driven by the belief that albino body parts possess magical powers, which bring wealth if used in potions produced by local witchdoctors. Most clients are rich businessmen, impatient to extract more gold from their mines, or politicians, eager to be elected into office. Since 2007, official reports indicate that over 54 people with albinism have been brutally murdered; their body parts hacked off and sold for large amounts of money: $2,000 for a leg or an arm, and $10,000 for a whole albino body.

In February 2009, when a friend living in Tanzania first told me about this genocide, I could not believe it. I searched the internet, to only find one article written by Tanzanian journalist, Vicky Ntetema, while working for the BBC in Dar-es-Salaam. Vicky visited a witchdoctor near Lake Victoria and presented herself as a landowner looking for gold. She had a hidden video camera during the meeting. The story aired in July 2008.

After watching the video, I decided to pursue this story. My first goal was to meet Vicky. She was in hiding after receiving death threats from witchdoctors and government members; so, it was difficult to get her phone number from the BBC. Eventually, she agreed to meet me in Dar-es-Salaam in March 2009. Vicky was very scared but still encouraged me to work on the project. She expressed the importance of exposing what is happening in Tanzania.

The next day, I headed to the Tanzania Albino Society headquarters (TAS) in Dar-es-Salaam, which is based in a shabby 2-room-office in the entrance building of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute (ORCI). Dr. Richard Lyimo from the ORCI, explained that albinism is a genetically inherited disorder characterized by lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin, and eyes. Tanzania has the highest rate of albinos in the world: 1 in 3,000 are affected, compared to 1 in 20,000 in Europe and North America. Albino are also known as Zeru in Swahili language, which means ghost-like creatures; it is derogatory. According to some studies, the albino genetic mutation started in the Great Rift Valley, which runs from Northern Syria in South West Asia to Central Mozambique in East Africa.

Albinism is associated with a number of vision defects, such as photophobia (excessive sensitivity to light), nystagmus (involuntary eye movement) and astigmatism (a defect in the eye which results in distorted images). Due to these vision problems, albino children face difficulties completing educational programs and a high percentage do not graduate. This has resulted in chronic unemployment and extreme poverty amongst African albinos. One of the main concerns is that many cannot afford sunscreen or proper clothing to protect themselves from the sun, which makes them susceptible to skin cancer.

Twenty-six year old, Hussein Adam, is one of the rare albino students at Dar-es-Salaam University; next year, he will become a teacher. Three years ago, when I entered university, I received a personal loan for my studies and I decided to buy a pair of glasses. Unfortunately, a few months later, I stumbled and broke them as I was walking on the street. Since then, Hussein works with his eyes two inches away from his paper or his computer monitor. Beside facing many challenges, Hussein believes that he is very lucky. Once I will get my teacher’s salary, I’ll buy for my kids.

The Mitindo Primary School near Lake Victoria, about 40km from Mwanza, is unique in Tanzania. The school welcomes 96 albino and 46 blind children (amongst the other students) from all over the country for a total of 1,200 kids. Though it is a government school, it is mainly sponsored by International NGOs—Caritas, Rotary, Lion’s Club, etc. When Al-Shaymaa J. Kwegyir—the only albino Member of Parliament nominated by the Tanzanian President in 2008—told me about the school, I assumed there would be tables and chairs. I was rather disappointed to see that most classes were in empty concrete room. The albino dormitories, furnished by NGOs with mosquito nets and mattresses still in plastic coverings, were acceptable but not enough.

Miles away, I went to another school to meet with orphan sisters, 10-year-old Bibiana Mbuchi and younger sister Tindy. Their story is so awful that I had to stop taking photographs after seeing tears on Bibiana’s face. On the night of January 2008, Tindy had seen a man chop off her sister’s right leg and two fingers with a machete; he later left the hut with her sister’s leg over his shoulder. Bibiana had been sold by her uncle, who was later arrested and sent to jail; meanwhile, the murderers are still free. She is one of the rare albinos victims to survive such an attack. While visiting her in the hospital, Kwegyir (the MP) decided to adopt her and Tindy; they are now in a school near Mwanza. Tindy already has many friends, but Bibiana is very shy and fears being sold.

Despite President Kikwete and the Prime Minister’s efforts to protect albino men, women and children, the Tanzanian government is still divided. Though there are setbacks, things are improving for albinos in Tanzania thanks to the NGO Under the Same Sun founded in 2009 by Peter Ash, a Canadian albino who launched an office in Dar-es-Salaam. The foundations main goal is to educate adults about the importance of sending poverty-stricken albino children to school and using sunscreen and hats to prevent skin cancer. Other goals include informing the world about albinos’ life and struggles.

Although the killings have not stopped, the government has finally started to protect African albino families. On September 23, 2009, a court in northwestern Tanzania sentenced three men to death by hanging for killing a fourteen year old albino boy. Nevertheless, when referring to BBC Journalist, Vicky Ntetema, The Minister for Interior Affairs still says, she is a shame for the country! Her desire to cover this horrific injustice creates an image of Tanzania that government members and the tourism business lobby do not want to portray.

The life expectancy of albinos in Tanzania is thirty years of age with a two percent chance of living beyond forty. After listening to and documenting the lives of albino men, women, and children, I was overcome with feelings of both sadness and strength. Through this series, I hope to reveal the injustice that they face and to make everyone, especially politicians and NGOs, aware of the challenges, discrimination and killings of African albinos in Tanzania.

Published August, 2010, Issue 10

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