In Tanzania, around 1 in 2,000 children are born with albinism, a condition which usually leaves them visually impaired and at risk of skin cancer.
Albinism is a genetically inherited condition. It causes people to be born with little or no pigmentation in their eyes, hair and skin because of a lack of melanin. Sufferers are therefore sensitive to bright light and carry a higher than average risk of skin cancer from exposure to the sun. Most albinos are also visually impaired and often need special glasses.
The condition is found in people of all ethnicities and affected children need extra support to deal with its affects. Having said that, albinism should not have any impact on life expectancy. However, in Tanzania, the average lifespan of a person with albinism is around 30 years compared with the country average of 59 (according to World Health Organisation data for 2011). This is because Tanzanians with albinism face prejudice and persecution. Even today, it is common for them to be killed by practitioners of witchcraft for their body parts.
In its new ‘State of the World’s Children’ report, the UN’s Child Agency (UNICEF) focuses on children around the world who are born with disabilities. As one example of the marginalisation suffered by children with disabilities, who are also among the most likely to face violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation, the report highlights the plight of those with albinism in Tanzania. (A BBC4 documentary last year followed children growing up with albinism in the Tanzanian territory of Ukerewe Island.)
A young Tanzanian man with albinism, Michael Hosea, talks about his experiences in the UNICEF report. He explains some of the difficulties he faced at school, such as often being unable to see the blackboard and having to wear long clothes to keep safe from the sun. But the biggest danger he faced, along with one of his sisters who also has albinism, was from local witch doctors wanting body parts. He and his family had to flee their home in Mwanza to escape a knife-wielding gang and lost a good friend to the killers.
Now, Michael lives in Dodoma and is about to graduate from school. Whenever he can, Michael works as an advocate for the rights of young people with disabilities, particularly those with albinism. He does this through the Leonard Cheshire Disability Young Voices network. Michael believes “education is the key to stopping the murder, abuse and discrimination” and prays that one day people will understand that disabled children such as albinos are “no different” from everybody else and that “we are all human beings and deserve to be treated with love and respect”.