9 June 2013

Tanzania: Challenges Facing People With Albinism Need to Be Addressed With Due Urgency

IF ever there was something or an incident recently that so tarnished the image of Tanzania, the killing of people with albinism is the one.

The heinous crime earned the otherwise peaceful and friendly country the dubious distinction of being the leading place on earth where body parts of certain individuals were being harvested for their "magical powers".

Thanks to witchcraft and superstitious beliefs, people with albinism were hunted, like animals, for their limbs, blood, skin and hair (to mention but some). The perpetrators believed that the body parts could bring fortune to a business such as fishing or mining.

The media and human right activists are credited with having highlighted the magnitude of the problem, prompting the government in 2009 to declare war on the albino hunters and revoke the licences of all the country's "traditional doctors" who used the body parts in their fetishes.

The government and other stakeholders' resolve to tame the barbaric killings have gradually paid dividends with a number of arrests having been made lately and suspects taken to court. Amid encouraging signs, however, many would like to see more arrests and convictions in such cases.

Indeed out of the 72 murders of people with albinism documented in Tanzania since 2000, only five cases were prosecuted. Speaking from Yokohama, Japan this week, President Jakaya Kikwete once again condemned the shameful killings, insisting that the perpetrators were driven by uncalled-for witchcraft beliefs.

Mr Kikwete also reiterated the government's commitment to end the killings which, he said, were not aggravated by deliberate violation of human rights but propelled by obsessive witchcraft beliefs. He said there would be no let-up by the government on controlling the situation until all suspects faced justice.

The president stressed that the government would not let such dull beliefs to prevail, noting that serious control measures taken by the government in the last three years brought the situation under control. "Some of the suspects have appeared in court and those convicted are facing the death penalty.

The measures will be sustained to stop the killings completely," President Kikwete insisted. While we hail government for such efforts, the nation must now look to seriously address challenges facing people with albinism in aspects like education, health and poverty. It is a known fact that children with albinism are "legally blind," hence they need support for their future.

With no proper access to eye health care and affordable learning aids, such as magnifiers and large prints in schools, many drop out of schools or score low marks in their exams, meaning they can not break the chain of poverty and unemployment. Worse still, majority of them live in rural areas where even their parents and teachers do not know how to help.

Stories of some children with albinism being hidden by their families at home thus denying them their rights of education are also common in the country. Skin cancer is another major challenge facing people with albinism in Tanzania. It continues to be a life-threatening disease and a silent killer, caused by the harmful ultraviolet rays.

According to the Society of People with Albinism in Tanzania, while people with albinism in developed countries like US, Canada and Sweden live normal life spans as the rest of the population, in Tanzania and other African countries experiencing the tropical sun, have their lives cut short by skin cancers.

Actually life expectancy for people with albinism in Tanzania is said to be 30 years only. This is unacceptable, as skin cancer caused by sun rays is preventable and can be effectively treated. Authorities can help this by providing sun protection gears such as sunscreen lotion, hats and opaque clothes. Sunscreen lotion, for instance, is available in very few pharmacies in some cities and towns in the country.

Where available, they are too expensive for ordinary people. The government must also address the shortage of dermatologists and lack of medical equipment in its hospitals. People with albinism in the country have only the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC) and Ocean Road Cancer Institute (ORCI), to go for skin cancer screening and treatment.

The location of the hospitals means that most patients incur huge costs and have to travel long distances for the service. Even more important is for authorities and all stakeholders to vigorously campaign for public awareness and understanding about albinism - a genetic disorder which results from a defect in the production of pigment (melanin) which gives colour to the skin, hair and eyes.

The public must know that people with albinism are normal people who need to be loved, cared and given a chance to achieve their dreams. They are neither a curse nor should they be treated as "ghosts". Indeed their body parts have nothing to do with the purported magical powers advertised by witchdoctors.

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