Albinism is a genetic condition with a recessive inheritance that causes little or no pigmentation in people’s eyes, skin or hair. Their lack of melanin means albinos have sandy coloured hair, a white chalky skin and light brown or blue eyes. Africa has a higher prevalence of people born with albinism with about one per 3,000 to 5,000 persons, seven times as many as in Europe or the United States. In some parts of southern Africa, their prevalence can be as high as one per 1,000.
Because they have no retinal pigment, albinos are susceptible to the harmful effects of UV radiation exposure from the sun.
This causes lesions in the most sun-exposed parts of the body such as the face, ears, neck and shoulders. Those lesions start with sunburn, blisters and photo-ageing of the skin, and can ultimately cause skin cancer. Life expectancy is as low as 30.
The sun is not the only enemy of African albinos: they also have to face social discrimination. Because they stand out, often the lone white face in a black crowd, they are stigmatised and become outcasts in their society.
Many people across Africa believe albinos have magical powers. In south-eastern Africa the word for albino is ‘sope’, which means something magical inhabited by evil spirits. In the Swahili language albinos are often called ‘zeru’, meaning a ghost-like creature. In 2007 there was a wave of albino killings in Tanzania.
The Tanzanian government is making efforts to ensure that no more killings occur. To end the stigmatisation, President Jakaya Kikwete has announced a crackdown on traditional healers. He also nominated Al-Shaymaa J. Kwegyir to be Tanzania’s first albino Member of Parliament.
In January 2015, the Tanzanian authorities announced that they would be banning witchdoctors in a move to proscribe the practice of harvesting albino body parts for traditional medicine. As a result of a cooperation between the Tanzanian Albinism Society (TAS) and the national police, a number of older murder cases and attacks on albinos will now be revisited and hopefully the perpetrators brought to justice.