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Albinos in Africa - Discrimination

Albinism is an inherited genetic condition characterised by the absence of melanin in skin, eyes and hair and can affect all races.

"Traditionally it’s a taboo or a curse to give birth to an albino. Some people believe that having an albino is the result of bewitchment in a family," said John Makumbe, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, and president of the Zimbabwe Albino Association — a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the capital, Harare. He puts the number of people with albinism in his country at about 14,000.

Suspicion about inter-racial relationships may also come into play. "I was nearly killed at birth. The midwife thought my mother was misbehaving with some white missionaries around our area," Makumbe told IPS.

"Many times people refer to me as a white person. Initially it was a form of insult; now it has become a joke. Some of my friends say ’You white man, have you got a farm? We want to invade it’," he said, in reference to the farm occupations that began in Zimbabwe in 2000, ostensibly to correct racial imbalances in land ownership that dated back to the colonial era.

Africa apparently has a higher prevalence of people born with albinism with about one per 4,000 to 5,000 persons compared to a country like Denmark, with one in 60,000.

More albinos are in Africa

Lorato Moswane, a South African accountant with albinism, chuckles when asked whether people view her as a white person. "I don’t know," she told IPS, in the commercial centre of Johannesburg. "But whenever I walk around places people look at me curiously."

"About 96 percent of people with albinism have eye problems. They can either be short or long sighted," Arnold Christianson, a professor of human genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told IPS.

Noted Mtshazo, "Short sightedness…reduces speed in terms of typing and writing. For example, I need more time to type and write than a person without albinism."

"In school I had always to sit in front because of my eyesight, and because of my slow response to reading and writing I never finished exams," he told IPS. "In those days, there was no extra time (to compensate for eye problems). A few universities now allow for extra time…when requested."

But, while ways of dealing with poor vision can be found in the classroom, a test for a driver’s licence offers less room to manoeuvre. "Even with spectacles most of us can’t pass the eye test for driving, (but) most employers prefer people with a driver’s licence," observed Mtshazo.

Their lack of melanin means albinos cannot do jobs which entail lengthy exposure to the sun. Melanin "protects the skin (and) the back of the eye, called the retina, from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. Without melanin, the sun burns the eyes and the skin very easily," said Christianson.

greater risk of skin cancer

"You develop blisters when you stand in the sun; always you have to work under shelter," said Mtshazo. As a result, "You can’t work in construction…because your body doesn’t contain the pigment to protect you against the sun."

Faced with such challenges, various NGOs for people with albinism are conducting a variety of initiatives in a bid to improve matters.

"We visit church leaders, tribal leaders and councilors to appeal to them to help people with albinism with hats, creams and sunglasses," said Joseph Ndinomupya, president of the Namibia Albinism Association Trust, an NGO which also looks to companies for assistance.

"We encourage church leaders, social workers and teachers to speak on the condition of albinism," said Tony Ngwenya, director of the Johannesburg-based Albinism Society of South Africa. In South Africa one in every 4,000 persons has albinism.

While a lack of funding prevents the society from conducting programmes in the workplace to educate employers about albinism, there is an outreach to schools at present: "We have a school competition this year. It’s an essay competition on albinism which closes in July. We encourage students to research and write about albinos."

In Zimbabwe, said Makumbe, there have been successful efforts to move albino teachers from hot areas to milder parts, where they will be safer from the sun.

"Some ministries have also approached us to employ our people as clerks and office messengers," he noted. "We tried to get some albinos to work in industry, but we found that some chemicals affect their skin."

Women less likely to kill children at birth

Makumbe’s association receives almost 2,500 U.S. dollars a month from Econet Wireless, a Harare-based company. "This goes a long way to paying salaries and meeting the rent of our office," he said. "But it’s very hard to raise fund for albinos."

Still, he noted, "In Zimbabwe, discrimination against albinos is gradually fading away. Women are unlikely to kill their children at birth for fear that people would laugh at them."

The situation elsewhere in the region is less promising, he believes.

"We have worked with albinos in Namibia but they are not getting the support of the authorities there. In Botswana, we didn’t get anywhere. In Mozambique it was fruitless. Up to now Mozambicans come over to Zimbabwe to collect (skin) lotions to deliver to people with albinism in Mozambique."