Life as an Albino in Africa

In Tanzania, sunscreen is extremely expensive, even for a middle-class family like the Charleses. In an effort to acknowledge albinism in the country, the ministry of health provides some sunscreen to people who register with the Tanzanian Albino Society, a nonprofit advocacy group. But Charles says more needs to be done.

"The government promises to bring us lotions that would help the kids protect their skin and, when they bring them, they are not enough and people end up not getting them," she says.

She says her children are well-liked and have not faced discrimination in the neighborhood or at school. But they sometimes forget that there are many "normal" children's activities in Tanzania that they cannot do, she says. And she worries about the increasing violence against people with albinism, a term rooted in the latin word meaning "white."

"Sometimes I wish my kids could go to a boarding school where they could be inside mostly and not have to deal with these daily hurdles," she says.

If Peter continues his refusal to wear any protective sun gear, there is a good chance that he will end up at the Ocean Road Institute for Cancer in Dar es Salaam, a specialized cancer hospital that treats albinos for their biggest killer: skin cancer.

There are no official statistics, but Samwel Mluge, the secretary general of the Tanzanian Albino Society, whose offices are on the hospital's premises, says that many people with albinism end up there. It's especially true with the elderly and people from rural communities, where family members are expected to work outside on the farms.

One woman from the Mwanza province near Lake Victoria, where many of the killings have taken place, has been getting radiation for skin cancer she discovered in March.

Although she is only 36, her rubbery skin envisages an age twice that. Her face is full of burns and sores that she must tend with a handkerchief every few minutes. She doesn't want to give her name, but claims that she doesn't face discrimination because of her albinism, which Mluge believes is denial.

"When you are born an albino in a family or a neighborhood, the major problem, especially here in Tanzania, is stigmatization," Mluge says. In rural communities especially, "they do not expose their problems because of fear. They think if they expose these problems, they'll be rejected by their families."

In addition to cancer, poor vision is another health issue facing people with albinism.

Nearly all of them experience low vision, making it difficult to do well in school because students often can't read the chalkboard.

At 5, little Peter Charles already has trouble focusing; his blue eyes dart back and forth before looking directly at something. Joyce, 14, wears thick glasses, something most Tanzanians can't afford. As a result, many children simply drop out of school, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

"Sometimes the teachers do not have the knowledge on how to handle pupils with albinism in the classrooms," Mluge says. "So you do not have any assistance."

At the Tanzania Albino Society, Mluge and his colleagues work with parents of kids with albinism to get them to take a more active role in their children's schooling, forcing teachers to take their child's albinism into account when teaching, as well as encouraging parents to get glasses for their children. "You need to have self-determination in order to learn better," he says.

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