The Albino Society in Ukerewe, Tanzania
According to the Tanzanian Albino Society the estimation of people with albinism living in Tanzania today is between 180,000 and 270,000. Albinism is an inherited gene disorder, the albino gene is recessive and stops the production of melanin in the skin, hair and eyes. For the Tanzanian albinos it means that every day is a big challenge. They have to protect their skin from the strong sun which can easily cause painful skin burning and could result in premature death due to skin cancer. Albinism is often associated with vision defects like involuntary eye movement or the absence of an iris in the eye.
Albinism is a disability and as there is no cure it influences massively the daily life of the affected people. It starts in primary school where children with albinism are often rejected by their fellow students. For adults getting a job is very difficult. Traditional field work in the merciless African sun is almost impossible for people with albinism. Many of them end up in their own little shop, they sell fish, fruits or vegetable on the local market, or they work as merchants or salesmen. In Tanzania there is no social security, and although albinos are handicapped they don't get any money from the government.
Ukerewe is the largest island in Lake Victoria and also the largest inland island in Africa. Today in Ukerewe live over 80 albinos, which is a large concentrated number for an area of the size of Ukerewe Island. Ukerewe from the view point of albinos is regarded to be a safe place which is important because people with albinism are still being hunted and persecuted. There are several reasons for the persecution. The main reason is based on the belief that body parts of albinistic people can transmit magical powers. Such superstition is prevalent especially in the African Great Lakes region like Lake Victoria or Lake Tanganyika.
Like in many other African countries, the traditional medicine in Tanzania has existed for a long time and has its roots in traditional religions. The practitioners of traditional medicine are the traditional healers. They heal physical or emotional illnesses in a traditional and spiritual way, but they also direct birth or death rituals. Still many people in Tanzania strongly believe in traditional healers, regardless of their own religion. A Christian in Tanzania has no problem to attend the church every Sunday, but in case of sickness to visit a traditional healer. Officially the Christian church in Tanzania criticizes and refuses the traditional medicine because of the strong connection to spirits and superstition, but every once in a while even Christian priests secretly attend a traditional healer.
Recently the Tanzanian government passed a law that all traditional healers must be registered and that for a good reason. There is no distinct boundary between traditional healing and witch craft. In fact, many traditional healers are also considered as witch doctors with magical power. Some of the witch doctors use human body parts as ingredients in rituals, concoctions and potions with the claim that their magic will bring prosperity or health to their clients. And, in rare cases, there are also witch doctors who are simply criminals by using their "magical power" to get money for killing people.
It is not uncommon that witch doctors spread misconceived ideas about the promise of wealth, success and power when body parts especially of albino people are used in a potion as part of their witchcraft practices. That's why people with albinism have been very often hunted, killed and dismembered or graves of albino people dug up and desecrated. In Tanzania the albino community is not only stigmatised but often also physically assaulted and sometimes even brutally murdered. According to an article of the BBC more than 200 unlicensed witchdoctors and traditional healers have been arrested in Tanzania in a crackdown on the murder of albino people.
Ukerewe as an island is considered to be a safe place for albinos because potential murderers cannot escape easily from an island. Nevertheless, the albino people in Ukerewe live in fear especially after sunset. They close their shops early, and they avoid going out on the streets when it is dark. Luckily times are changing due to better education. At school the teachers inform the students about albinism and try to integrate the albino children into the class community. In recent months the Tanzanian government has taken strict steps to protect albinos whose lives are in danger. Several witch doctors have been sentenced to death in Tanzania in 2015 after being found guilty of murdering albino people. However, the life of albinos in Tanzania might be more secure in recent times, but it still is a big challenge and that day by day. Hopefully there will be better times for the Tanzanian albino community, and the stigmatisation and the excluding from education and employment are soon over.