When growing up in Kagera region, in north-western Tanzania, there used to be only one known person with albinism in the whole district.
He used to pass near our house on his way to and from work. We used to wait for him in the evenings when he returned from work and would chant, “Omwera, omwera!” literally meaning, white person, a terminology used to refer to albinos in our area.
In a feat of anger, the man would hurl stones at us.
At some point, we didn’t see him for more than a month and we were told he had disappeared mysteriously. None of us bothered to find out what had happened to him, neither did his friends whom he used to go to work with. They took the news of his disappearance lightly.
At school, I used to be a member of the school drama group and there was an albino character in one of the plays we had to perform on Parents’ Day. The drama teacher insisted that a classmate who had a strange skin disease play the role, which depicted a bloodthirsty character who would transform himself into a ghost at night and suck people’s blood.
But in later years, I came to learn that most children with albinism were kept indoors. Probably that is why people felt there were only a few albinos in the area. But the truth was that most of them were killed after birth because it was considered an abomination if a person with albinism was born in a family. Those who were lucky to survive were always kept indoors so that people would not see them.
Alfred Kapole, an albino activist based in Mwanza, says newborns with albinism were always murdered after birth in most communities along Lake Victoria.
He says in Ukerewe, for example, children with albinism were fed a large quantity of tobacco so they would die because they were considered a curse in the family.
“Some people don’t eat with people with albinism. In most cultures, such people would be thrown into the bush,” he said.
Even when a person with albinism died, they were buried inside the house under the bed and a funeral and mourning would never be held like when a normal person died. This was influenced by the fact that a person with albinism was always hidden indoors and his family would therefore conceal the news of his death so people would not know an albino ever existed in the family.
After the spate of killings of people with albinism started, especially in West Africa, one school of thought believed that the rise in the attacks was mostly caused by popular Nigerian movies which have a heavy witchcraft content and portray how superstition can help people achieve whatever they yearn for in life, from a wife who bewitches her husband to regain the seemingly diminishing love to a businessperson who visits a witchdoctor to have his business competitor killed so his business could flourish.
Nigerian movies have become all too popular in most parts of the country and telling from the stories people narrate after watching such movies, it seems they end up believing in whatever they see in them.
But Kapole dismisses the argument, basing his stance on the fact that most people with albinism who were reported to have disappeared mysteriously in the 1970s could have been killed by people who believed they could become rich for using or possessing their body parts. And that was before the movies started becoming popular in Tanzania and in any case, very few people then owned TV sets.
“We have always been a superstitious country, with the majority believing that witchcraft can help someone succeed in many things,” says Kapole.
In support of Kapole’s assertion, The Pew Forum carried out a study in 2010 which interviewed more than 25,000 people in 19 sub-Saharan countries about all aspects on faith and belief and the findings show that 93 per cent of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft despite going to church and mosque regularly.
The study may be the right tool to tell us why in Maasai culture, for example, a child born with albinism was abandoned or thrown into the wilderness or left on someone’s doorstep to be trampled upon by cattle.
According to Phitalis Were Masakhwe, in an article published in Pambazuka in 2010, this was because of the belief that an albino child could not take care of cows because of visual impairment.
In popular culture, such as literature and movies, the launch in 2002 of The Da Vinci Code, a film by Dan Brown, together with an increase in the number of groups defending the rights of minority groups, intensified the discussion.
The critics went as far as naming the movie as the most popular film ever to have depicted albinism in a very negative way.
The debate touched on biblical days and the Book of Enoch and its angelic depiction of ark-builder Noah and Jesus in Revelation with white, wooly hair.
One can imagine that it was impracticable for Africa to be depicted differently, considering the fact that it has the highest number of people with albinism and has never received any positive presentation.
However, the negative depiction didn’t stop people with albinism in showbiz, such as Michael Bowman, who is a famous American actor, and Connie Chiu, a well considered model, and David Wrench, an electronic musician and sound engineer from Wales, from rising to celebrity.
In Africa, Salif Keita, one of Africa’s most recognised Afro-pop singers and songwriters from Mali, ia at the zenith of his successful career and enjoying well deserved recognition.
However, that didn’t mean that such movies were not made on the continent and that actors and actresses with albinism were not used in the movies to extend the fallacy about albinism.
Before even the killings of people with albinism escalated in East Africa, influencing the making of movies such as Albino Mgeni, a movie called Albino was produced in 1976. It depicts an African with albinism named Whispering Death who leads terrorist raids against white settlers.
In Tanzania, Keisha is a household name. She has not only been a pop star who won in the Best Female Artiste of the Year category at the Kilimanjaro Tanzania Music Awards in 2009 but her famous song, Usinicheke, meaning don’t laugh at me, aims at sensitizing those who felt that people with albinism were not humans.
The song enjoyed a lot of airplay until people started thinking that Keisha was probably the only artiste with albinism. But another equally talented artiste named BabuSinare, a.k.a Albino Fulani, started singing. He has largely been composing music on the rights of people with albinism.
Despite being based in Ohio, in the United States, his music has had a lot of impact, especially in sensitizing people on albino killings.
Music aside, movies with albino themes or characters with albinism are on the rise in Tanzania, especially after the killings took their toll. A number of movies on the theme have been released recently, but Albino Mgeni, which is in three parts, seems to stand out. Although Bongo movies critics seem to be unhappy with its storyline, the fact that a person with albinism is one of the main characters makes it important in this context.
The movie is about an educated young man called Nguvumali who works for an insurance company. He is appointed to lead the company, a position which requires him to move to the headquarters in Dar es Salaam. On his first night in the city, an albino girl knocks on his door looking for help, but it turns out that the girl is a bad person as she pulls out a gun and arrests Nguvumali as soon as she gets inside.
Nguvumali later manages to seize the gun from her, but as he interrogates her, the girl suddenly gets shot and dies. Scared of being arrested for the murder, he single-handedly buries the girl’s body in the middle of the night.
More films aimed at sensitizing the people on the rights of people with albinism have been produced and one of the popular ones is White & Black: Crimes of Colour, which has been produced in collaboration with Under the Same Sun, an NGO fighting for the rights of people with albinism. The documentary shows Vicky Ntetema, a BBC radio journalist, who investigates the black market of people with albinism.