By Joseph Kabia
People living with albinism in Africa are in constant fear as human poachers cast their nets wider, driven by superstitious beliefs that fuel clandestine trade in albino body parts.
In a 2009 report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an estimated 10,000 people living with albinism in East Africa were displaced and in hiding.
Between 2007 and 2009 44 people living with albinism, including children, were killed in Tanzania and 14 others in Rwanda. Most of the killings were ritualistic and fuelled by myths and witchcraft.
In East Africa, trade in albino body parts that has been in existence for years has been exposed. This prompted former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete to nominate a person living with Albinism to parliament in an effort to demystify albinism.
In Kenya the condition is misunderstood. “Being born white in a black population is considered a curse with an element of fear, ridicule, negativity and social exclusion,” said Dr. Prabha Choksey of the Albinism Foundation of East Africa.
However, she said cases of ritual killings are rare in Kenya and that many people living with albinism from around East Africa come to seek refuge in Kenya.
She contends that the killing of people with albinism in Tanzania exposed the depth of social intolerance and myth that all people with albinism are blind.
African traditional quacks spread the rumour that Elixir prepared with albino skin is an extremely potent potion for prosperity.
Notion of prosperity has driven people living with albinism to an early grave as they are skinned to bridge the rising cost of living.
To camouflage trade in albino body parts in Africa, human poachers have defined a theory that “albinos never die, they just disappear.” This, according to Dr. Choksey, is to mask their trade so that when criminals abduct and kill albinos there should be no cause for alarm.
Dr. Choksey said that albino body parts attract monetary returns. She reveals that the hand of an albino can be bought for over Ksh500, 000.
“Beliefs and myths of albino organs curing cancer of any form through transplant contributed to the death of a little girl in Tanzania whose throat was cut,” said Dr. Choksey.
The spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa is also said to contribute in raising the dangers faced by albinos. This according to Dr. Choksey, is heightened by a modern myth and belief that an intimacy with an albino can cure one of HIV/AIDS.
“Albinos normally find it difficult to assimilate into the general population. In some parts of Africa, if a pregnant woman sees an albino, she should spit on the ground three times otherwise the child in the womb will be born with albinism,” said Dr. Choksey.
She adds that there are myths that have violated the human rights of albino children especially ones that state that children with albinism are blind and must study in blind schools.”
“Most of these children have far much better eye sight than people without albinism. If their condition had been diagnosed at an earlier age, it would have made a lot of difference before they were sent to special schools,” said Dr. Choksey, a consultant ophthalmologist based in Nairobi.
Through an initiative to visit special schools to provide professional ophthalmologic intervention to children with albinism, the foundation concludes that many children with albinism need not have ended up there.
“Out of every 50 children with albinism that I have encountered, 35 have near perfect eyesight and should not have been in special schools.”
Dr. Choksey warns against adhering to any of the myths saying that some of them like ‘If a person with albinism is exposed to the sun for a long time he or she will get pigment.’ Many children and adults have developed fatal Cancer due to this belief.
Another belief that has contributed immensely to the suffering of albino children in Africa is that “Albino is born when a woman has a child with a white man called ‘Mzungu’ in Kenya. The consequences of this myth are that 60-70 percent of Kenyan children with Albinism being single parent children or staying with grandparents,” she said.
She contends that the stigma associated with albinism is such that a mother is shunned by society for ‘giving birth to a strange.’
“What needs to be clear is that it takes two to tangle. Both parents can be carriers of the gene and therefore the blame should never be heaped on the woman alone,” she said.
Albinos have to contend with high cost of essential products like sunscreens of which a bottle of 250ml bottle costs between Ksh850 and Ksh1, 600. The protection eye glasses costs between Ksh.2000 and Ksh 3000.
As part of the awareness and intervention campaign initiated by Dr. Choksey Albinism Foundation appeals are being made to donors and governments, especially the Ministry of Education, to support her foundation in rolling out a national eye screening of all children in primary schools as an early intervention strategy to curb blindness and enhancing productivity as part of the Universal Health Coverage agenda.