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under skins of fear

In June this year a 53-year-old Tanzanian man sat down to have dinner with his wife in Mwanza, the second largest city after Dar es Salaam.

In June this year a 53-year-old Tanzanian man sat down to have dinner with his wife in Mwanza, the second largest city after Dar es Salaam.

A normal occurrence, you might say. Except that before the meal was over the man, Rutahiro Nyerere, would be lying dead, his lifeless body left minus his legs and genitals.

But this was not the usual type of muti killing: Nyerere was an albino and in Tanzania people like him live on borrowed time and in constant fear.

On top of all the ills visited by Africans on their fellow humans around the continent, like being driven from their homes because of endless wars, albinos suffer more, thanks to nothing more than their pigmentation.

The condition, say the experts, refers to a group of inherited conditions. People with albinism have little or no pigment in their eyes, skin, or hair. They have inherited genes that do not make the usual amounts of a pigment called melanin.

An American case study says "one person in 17000 in the US has some type of albinism".

Jeff Wandi, a doctor from Dar es Salaam who offers expertise on the subject in the East African country, says one in every 4000 people in Africa is an albino, the same statistic cited by Nomasonto Mazibuko, head of Albinism South Africa.

The real poser is why a normal condition like albinism, which is known to affect people from all races, should be stigmatised to such appalling levels in Tanzania.

The same report, that told of Nyerere's hacking, quoted Simeon Mesaki, a veteran anthropologist who studies the phenomenon of witchcraft, saying "there are so-called witch doctors who claim that they can do something with whatever body parts they get from albinos".

What balderdash!

But perhaps not that shocking if one were to consider the views of Mazibuko, one of 10 children, five of whom have the condition: "There's a sangoma on the East Rand [Ekurhuleni] who sought the blood of albinos, claiming he could use it effectively in a potion for a particular cure."

Mazibuko says people have also bizarrely targeted albinos for sex because they believed it was a cure for Aids..

The Tanzanian report details even more grotesque misconceptions: "The legs of an albino are the most prized as they are believed to bring more wealth to miners, while [their] hair attached to fishing nets is supposed to induce a good catch."

Consequently, "as rumours have spread through the country of people becoming wealthy within a few days of using albinos' body parts, the number of killings has reached more than 20 cases in the last year".

April also saw the swearing-in of Tanzania's first ever albino member of parliament, Alshymaa Kwegyir, who was victimised as a child.

Zeru zeru is the Tanzanian equivalent of nkawu - the Nguni word for monkey - used as a derogatory term for albinos locally.

It has been shouted at Mazibuko many times.

A trained teacher of many years' standing, who is furthering her studies with Unisa, the matronly Mazibuko says people need to be thoroughly educated about albinism, in a campaign that will be launched this month.

Mazibuko says her organisation counsels many mothers who have given birth to affected children - because many mothers-in-law often object to such births, "claiming it is nowhere in their family tree".

The cruel treatment suffered by albinos in Tanzania has luckily not happened here, says Mazibuko, but she adds that there are children born with albinism who are locked inside their homes by "ashamed" parents.

On September 27 her organisation will host a family day at Thokoza Park in Rockville, Soweto, where they hope to engage with local communities about the true facts of albinism.

To avoid the harshness of the sun, the gathering will begin at 2pm and go on until 8pm.

Given the music of Salif Keita of Mali, all Africa should know by now that albinos are not, according to a popular myth, born as punishment for the bad deeds of their parents.

Zimbabwean political analyst Prof John Makumbe, who often regales audiences with the story of how he was nearly killed by a shocked midwife when he was born, is yet again living proof that albinos are just like you and me, fully human.

Closer home, former politico Rev Johannes Tselapedi is another example of how albinos can contribute to society. Of course, his political adversary at the time, former Bophuthatswana president, Lucas Manyane Mangope, never skipped a chance to poke fun at Tselapedi.

The deeds of the killers of albinos in Tanzania like Rutahiro Nyerere have brought shame to their country.

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