Life as an Albino in Africa

Like most middle-class 14-year-old girls in Tanzania, Joyce Charles enjoys hanging out with her friends, going to school and watching television. But she has albinism, a condition that leaves her without any pigmentation -- white skin, bleach-blond hair and pale blue eyes.

She sticks out in a crowd of her black peers, which is about more than just being different: It's increasingly dangerous.

In Tanzania, like most of sub-Saharan Africa, people with the hereditary condition are often thought of as having supernatural powers, which makes them a target.

At least 20 Tanzanians have been murdered this year alone, mutilated for their body parts, which are then sold on the black market by witch doctors. The estimated 170,000 albinos in Tanzania are on edge, feeling as if they are being hunted.

Joyce was almost a victim.

A few weeks ago on her way to school in Dar es Salaam, she was spotted by human poachers. "Two men passed by riding on a bicycle, and I heard them saying, 'When you take that lady, you are going to become rich,'" she says.

"After a few minutes a man standing beside me asked me if I knew the two men who were across the road. I told him no, and he told me to be aware of them since they were talking and pointing towards us."

Shaken, she ran home and stayed home from school that day.

"I feared because I have heard many times before that albinos have been killed," she says. "When I saw the two men pointing towards me, I feared that the same would happen to me."

Her mother, Yustina Mloka Charles, says that Joyce is no longer allowed to walk outside their neighborhood without an adult accompanying her. Charles's sister takes her to school.

"I didn't used to worry at all," Charles says. "But since the day my daughter was told, even if she runs, one day they will get hold of her, we are extremely careful."

Charles says the biggest challenge is not the threat of poachers but the everyday hurdles of parenting a child with albinism.

Although neither she nor her husband has the condition, both of their children do. Because albinism is caused by two recessive genes, it is seen in higher numbers in societies that are isolated or in countries where there is intermarriage. In many African countries, the rate of albinism is about 1 in 3,000, compared to roughly 1 in 17,000 in the United States.

Joyce has a 5-year-old brother, Peter, who, like most little boys, loves to run around and play outside in the hot African sun. But for Peter, an innocent game of soccer has lasting consequences. For people with albinism, the sun is the enemy, a hard concept for a rambunctious child to grasp.

"When I am around, I can make him stay in for a few minutes," his mother says.

"But I have a job, which makes me come back at home around four or five in the evenings. The house help has her own chores and thus cannot always keep watch of [Peter], who is extremely naughty. As a result he has some burns on his face."

Both children are supposed to wear long sleeves and hats whenever they go outside, but Charles says that, too, is almost impossible to enforce. Joyce, as she has gotten older, will sometimes refuse to wear long sleeves or a hat. And Peter is outright rebellious about it.

"I have bought him lots of hats, but you always have to insist that he wears his hat," she says. "At times he does not feel like wearing it, and you will see him running off without it. He actually doesn't like to wear the hat; you have to force him to do so."

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