Albinos in some African countries have always struggled to overcome the superstitions that surround them. They face daily discrimination and are often shunned by their community. They are also vulnerable to skin cancer – which kills many of them before the age of 30 – and poor eyesight, which results in children failing to finish school and leads to the perception that albinos are intellectually weak.
In Tanzania, whose population of 36 million includes at least 8,000 albinos, a new and more sinister threat has arisen. In the last year up to 20 have been killed for a growing trade in albino body parts. Many Tanzanians believe that albinos have magical powers and their hair, skin and bones are used by witch doctors to make ‘get rich quick’ potions – which have become more lucrative as food prices have rocketed. While there have been close to 200 arrests, no-one has been prosecuted despite 71 of those questioned saying that witch doctors had told them to bring albino body parts.
The Tanzanian authorities have launched a crackdown on the witch doctors. ‘This is serious,’ explains spokesperson Salvator Rweyemamu. ‘It continues some of the perceptions of Africa we’re trying to run away from.’ In April the President Kilkwete appointed his first albino Member of Parliament, to the surprise of many, including Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer herself: ‘I didn’t expect it. I think the President chose me because he believed in me. I’m a very hard-working woman.’ She hopes to use her new position to educate the public about albinism and end the discrimination.