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Tuesday, February 28, 2017
- At a time when race relations are strained in Zimbabwe, one group is finding itself shunned by both white and black people.
They are the more than 15,000 black people with albinism, an inherited lack of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes.
Besides being treated like lepers, there is a rise in the rape of albino women fuelled by myths that if an HIV-positive man sleeps with an albino woman he would be cured.
‘’With the HIV/AIDS pandemic, most albino ladies are being taken advantage of because of their skin colour. There is this traditional belief that if you sleep with an albino woman, you get cured,” says Felicity Mwamuka of the Zimbabwe Albino Association (ZIMAS).
Zimbabwe, with a population of about 13 million, has a high prevalent rate of one HIV-positive person for every four sexually active people.
But like elsewhere in Africa, Zimbabwe’s albinos are the last minority group to find a voice.
Treated like outcasts from birth, albinos are shunned by society and unable to find jobs. ‘’We want a situation where every albino has his or her own income-generating project because it’s difficult for us to get employed. When you apply (for a job) you do not mention that you are an albino. They invite you for interview but the minute you walk through the door and they see you, they tell you the job is gone,” says Mercy Maunganidze of the Zimbabwe Albino Association.
The fact that Maunganidze has lived to tell her story shows that the society’s attitude is changing. Traditionally, albinos used to be killed at birth. Although the situation is different now, they still face life-threatening problems, she says.
‘’You can’t even start selling vegetables as no one will buy from you because you are an albino. Over time, the frustration is so much that it affects you negatively,” Maunganidze says. ‘’If you keep on thinking about what people say about you or do to you, you will have tears on your cheeks forever.”
But the discrimination is especially onerous for albino women whose sharp African features contrast with their white skin. White people, whose relations with their black compatriots have strained since President Robert Mugabe launched his black empowerment policy two years ago, make up less than one percent of Zimbabwe’s population.
‘’Many albino men marry easily than their female counterparts because the society believes that an albino girl will bring albino children. It takes time for albino women, most of whom are single parents, to marry,” says Mwamuka.
It is also hard for albino children to fit easily into school. Take the case of Gertrude Sumairi and her husband; both are black, but 10 years ago, they had an albino child.
‘’At first people laughed and I was shy to walk with my son. I had to stay in the house and only moved with my son when there were few people around. Even at school, other kids would laugh at my son. This made my son not want to go to school,” recalls Sumairi.
While Sumairi was lucky that her husband accepted their albino son, in most cases, fathers of children with albinism often suspect their mates of being unfaithful, resulting in marriage break-up.
Concurring, John Makumbe, the chairperson of ZIMAS, says when he went to school the other children refused to share the desk or books with him.
Makumbe, who is a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, says people often shun an albino for fear that albinism is infectious.
A recent ZIMAS survey shows that more than 63 percent of albinos contacted come from broken homes. In most cases, the father abandoned the family when the albino child was born.
The majority of albinos are semi-literate, unemployed or self-employed. Many do not reach beyond primary school education. In worst cases, people with albinism are often regarded as a curse from God or a sign that their ancestors are unhappy.
The Zimbabwe Albino Association, which is trying to educate the society about albinism, says it has received little support for the Trust, set up in 1996.
When a donor sends aid, the association has difficulty clearing it because of the high customs duties charged on imports into Zimbabwe.
The association is urging the government to declare albinism a disability so that import duty can be waived for its members.
The life expectancy of albinos is 43 years compared to 57 years for dark-skinned Zimbabweans, says ZIMAS. Only 29 percent of albinos live to reach the age of 60 years.
Albinism, which also causes vision problems and leaves the skin susceptible to sunburn and cancer, is a genetic condition in which the enzyme necessary to produce dark pigment in the skin is absent.
Maunganidze says because of the vulnerability of their skin, their cells mutate and disfigure, causing fatal skin cancer.
The albinos have appealed to the government to place sunscreen lotion on the essential-drugs list so that they can come into the country duty free.
Researchers say the term ‘’albino” was first applied by the Portuguese to ‘’white” people they encountered in West Africa during the scramble for Africa a century ago. Those ‘’white” people probably had partial or complete albinism, they believe.