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Africa's albinos seek their place in the sun

Lack of pigmentation causes many to be killed to make potions for the superstitious.

Rick Guidotti, a former New York fashion photographer turned human rights activist, was recently in East Africa on a fact-finding mission for his organization, Positive Exposure. He fears that the attacks on albinos could escalate as economic conditions worsen in the region. He said that in the area of Ruyigi, Burundi, for instance, the average yearly salary is $10.

“So when there’s an opportunity to feed 10 children when you bring the bones of one child with albinism, it’s greed but it’s also survival,” said Guidotti. “And it’s only going to get worse until people stand up and start prosecuting those that are suspected of these horrifying crimes.”

That may finally be happening. Last month in Burundi nine men were convicted of crimes linked to the abduction and murder of people with albinism and sentenced from one year to life in prison. In neighboring Tanzania there have been hundreds of arrests for the killings of albinos, but so far no convictions.

Now, in the beginning of August, the trials of four of seven suspected killers of albinos have been suspended by the courts in two districts, according to reports, because funds have dried up. Still, Tanzanian government officials insist that they are moving as fast as possible to prosecute those responsible, but not fast enough for Peter Ash. He is monitoring the situation from his office in Vancouver, Canada. For him it’s personal: He is an albino.

On one recent visit to Tanzania, Ash said he was standing on a corner when young men taunted him with chants of “Deal, deal,” suggesting that by killing him they could cash in on his body parts. For that reason Ash now travels in Tanzania with his own security.

“If I was born in Tanzania, my life would be in danger, because I have exactly the same genetic disorder as they do, and I can’t sit by and do nothing,” said Ash. Two years ago he founded Under The Same Sun, a Canadian charity to assist Tanzania’s albinos, who number nearly 200,000 out of a total population of 40 million. Under The Same Sun recently opened an office in the capital, Dar as Salaam.

Ash has also focused on the albino asylum case in Spain, where human rights attorney Ramirez faces an uphill battle in proving Moszy’s fear of persecution if returned to Benin.

“While we don’t have tons of details on Benin, I can tell you that throughout the whole area of Africa, beliefs exist that people with albinism are cursed,” said Ash.

Education is the key to reducing the superstitions against albinos, said Al-Shaymaa J. Kwegyir, a former airline employee who last year became the first person with albinism to sit in Tanzania’s parliament. “The president appointed me, so as to help albinos and trying to educate people about the albinos that they’re human beings. They need equal rights like everybody else,” said Kwegyir.

In other parts of the world, albinos are viewed quite differently. A group of islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama is home to the Kuna, an indigenous people of whom one in 200 is an albino. The Kuna believe that albinos are children of the moon and are godlike.

“Obviously I would prefer that to having them killed,” said Ash, "but I would most prefer that they be treated like anyone else.”

The best possible outcome for people with albinism said Ash is to eradicate mythology of all sorts about people who suffer a disease that makes them both vulnerable to the sun and to the prejudices of millions.

Phillip Martin is executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions, a non-profit public radio journalism company dedicated to exploring issues that divide society. Currently he is heading up the Color Initiative, an on-going radio-journalism project on PRI’s The World that is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Funding Exchange (Paul Robeson Fund).