Tanzanian albinos come out of the shadows
Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer got her job because of the way she looks. Not because of her average height, her shoulder-length hair or her fashion sense. She is a Tanzanian MP because of her skin, which is white and freckled with sun damage and her pale, almost colourless eyes.
Ms Kway-Geer, 48, was given a parliamentary seat in April by the President Jakaya Kikwete because she is an albino and he needed to make a public statement to answer the political storm generated by the savage murder of 35 albinos in the country since October of last year.
Overnight, she went from being a respected minor official at the airport to a national symbol. Ms Kway-Geer has become the most recognisable albino in Tanzania, when a network of witch doctors and killers are targeting people with albinism, murdering them for their body parts which are believed to add potency to black magic rituals. Understandably, she is scared. “I’m an albino and I don’t know who is hunting me,” she says. “They are desperate for these body parts.”
Tanzania has long been known for political stability and safari holidays, until mutilated bodies of albinos started appearing in such large numbers that no one could ignore it. There are an unusually high number of people in Tanzania with the inherited disorder and some believe that the original rogue gene that causes albinism can be traced to East Africa. These Tanzanians, too white to be black, have always been viewed with suspicion, thought to possess supernatural powers in local superstition, “ghosts” who do not die but simply disappear.
A mixture of social stigma, physical vulnerability to the sun and poor eyesight has left the community the most impoverished group of people in Tanzania. And that was before they started to be harvested for body parts. With horrific murders and mutilation making headlines around the world, President Kikwete needed to send a message. That is where Ms Kway-Geer came in.
Naturally, she bridles at the idea of her appointment being merely a gesture. “I am a human being,” she says. “He wanted to show that an albino can be a leader, that they have brains like any other person.” First on her parliamentary agenda has been the completion of a national survey of the albino community. “We need to know how many albinos there are, where they are and what problems they are facing.”
The survey is being done in co-operation with the Tanzanian Albino Society (TAS) and aims to provide a snapshot of the health, education and employment situation of the country’s most marginalised group. TAS, which Ms Kway-Geer helped to set up in 1999, giving her a first role in a national organisation, has been one of the main bodies trying to publicise
the crisis. A voluntary group operating for years on a shoestring budget, it has survived largely thanks to the sole support of the British charity Action on Disability and Development (ADD), one of the three charities being supported by this year’s Independent Christmas appeal.
“TAS needs more support, both financial and in terms of training,” says Ms Kway-Geer. Very few albinos have had access to an education as she has, and if TAS is going to help empower the community to stand up for itself it is going to need outside expertise. “People are still ignorant; they think albinos are not human beings. They’re taking our skins and bones.”
Ms Kway-Geer has faced lifelong prejudice. She remembers her early childhood fondly and says that her parents – non-albinos who gave birth to three albino children – loved her and looked after her. First contact with the stigma came at school. “I cried a lot when I was a child, always being called names. But now I’m a grown-up, I’m proud to call myself an albino.”
She was already knocking on the door of politics before her Presidential appointment. She had previously contested and narrowly lost a nomination to run for parliament with the ruling party. Now she is brining action to her politics. The MP has adopted two young orphaned albino girls who only narrowly escaped being hacked to death. The two girls are from near the city of Mwanza, on the shore of Lake Victoria, an area where the belief in witchdoctors is strongest. The girls were staying with their aunt until they were attacked by men with machetes, leaving one with a bad leg-wound.
Ms Kway-Geer is paying for their schooling and looking after them herself during the holidays at her home in the capital, Dar es Salaam. Three albino females in one house is a tempting target to the people who see them as products worth thousands of US dollars. She says she has no special security but has been assured by police that she is safe.
But she has a responsibility to keep on working and remain in the public eye, she insists. She is now a role model for a community kept for so long in the shadows and only emerging now because it is in mortal peril. Running away is not an option for the new MP. She has a country to educate, two adopted children to protect, a parliament to make herself heard in and an albino census to complete.