Ignorance causes myths and superstitions about this medical condition

Wandering the streets of the townships after dark was never a good idea for black South Africans during the latter days of apartheid.

Added to the risk of being stopped by security police or getting caught up in crossfire between rival black factions was the fear, for one group of people, of being taken for a "whitey".

"My mother used to say, 'Don't move around in Soweto at night. You'll be mistaken for a white woman and killed,'" Nomasonto Mazibuko recalls.

Mazibuko is one of the tens of thousands of Africans affected by albinism, a genetic disorder characterised by a partial or total absence of the pigment that gives skin, hair and eyes their colour.

Although it occurs in all races, albinism is thought to be more prevalent in Africa than other parts of the world.

Statistics on the subject are incomplete, but studies quoted by a World Health Organisation report last year gave prevalence rates of between 1 in 15000 in Nigeria's East Central state to as many as 1 in 1000 in the Tonga tribe of Zimbabwe.

In South Africa about 1 in 4000 is estimated to be born with albinism, compared with about 1 in 20000 worldwide.

Apart from the risk of skin cancer involved with growing up under a baking hot sun, African people with albinism have a slew of ignorance-fuelled myths and superstitions to contend with.

"In rural areas you get all sorts of beliefs. In Limpopo it's believed to be a curse. In the south, among the Zulu and Xhosa peoples they think it's a blessing," says Patrick Wadula, a spokesman for Absa, one of South Africa's largest banks.

Some people reach out to shake his hand on streets hoping for good luck, he says.

But he won't travel alone into rural areas for fear someone will jab him with a needle to draw his blood in the belief that it cures HIV-Aids.

Wadula considers himself fortunate to have been born into a family where, as the only child of four to be born with albinism, he got "all the attention".

Outside the family cocoon things were harder. Other children would throw stones at him on his way to school, forcing him to take a different route home.

In Bulgaria, where he spent several years in exile from apartheid, he was referred to as a "white nigger".

The prejudice was also waiting for him when he returned home to South Africa in the early 1990s. Despite being the bearer of a masters degree in economics, his fitness for employment was repeatedly called into question.

"How long are you able to keep your concentration," interviewers would ask. "Do you run out of breath quickly?"

Mazibuko, a former teacher working at the Gauteng education department, said: "If you have albinism in South Africa people think you're stupid."

Mazibuko grew up in Soweto, the ninth child in a family of ten children, five of whom were born with albinism.

Both her parents are what she calls "normally-pigmented," as are her four children.

She was driven to form the Albinism Society of South Africa in the early 1990s after teachers at the school where she was deputy principal complained they "didn't want to be led by a person with albinism".

"Actually they used the term albino, which is derogatory," she said.

"I sat down and thought to myself, for an educationist to be calling another educationist an albino, is really ignorant".

The Albinism Society aims to provide support for people with albinism and educate teachers, nurses and other professionals and officials about their needs, such as free sunblock and better eye care.

The inclusion in its ranks of professionals such as Wadula and Mazibuko is key to building the confidence of younger members.

"The biggest problem people with albinism have is confidence," says Wadula. - Sapa-dpa