KABANGA, Tanzania (AP) — As an infant in rural Tanzania, Angel Salvatory was unusual. Snow white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes set her apart from others in her village. Those unique looks have also made her a target.
“Her father thought she was a gift from God,” says Salvatory’s mother, Bestida Simon. “One that he could use to get riches.”
Since surviving an attack led by her father, Salvatory has spent the past four years living in the Kabanga Protectorate Center, a government safe house for people living with albinism.
“Angel’s father led a group to attack her. He had wanted to attack her since she was 3 months old. He thought if they’d take Angel to a witch doctor as a sacrifice that they could get rich,” Simon said.
Burning in the daylight and hunted in the shadows, having albinism is often a death sentence in East Africa. In Tanzania, one out of every 1,400 people has albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a lack of pigment in the body. That compares to a global average of one in 20,000 people according to Under the Same Sun, a Canada-based albinism advocacy group.
The group says that more than 100 people with albinism have been physically attacked in Tanzania since 2006, including 71 who died. Albinos are widely seen as a source of magic in Tanzania’s traditional communities.
Long in danger and neglected in their own country, albinos in Tanzania now have a bit of hope for increased government assistance.
In April members of Parliament heard emotional testimony that moved some to suggest making sun screen tax free, and Parliament voted to donate part of their salary to the cause.
Severin Edward, a program officer with the Tanzania Albino Society, noted that parliament promised to set aside funds for the special needs of people with albinism and that the country’s prime minister said the government has agreed to grant special priority to court cases involving albinos, to bring about justice faster.
“This is the good point to start,” Edward said by email last month.
A government census done in 2012 could reveal the exact numbers of albinos in Tanzania. The portion of the census regarding people with disabilities, including albinos, is expected to be released in 2014.
In Tanzania, albinos are often referred to as ghosts, or zero zero, which in Swahili signifies someone who is less than human. Legends here suggest that that even when an albinos is killed, he or she never really dies.
Brutal attacks against albinos are often led by witch doctors who use albino body parts in potions they claim bring riches. In response, the government began placing children and adults with albinism into safe houses. Although they may be physically protected in the centers, many there feel imprisoned.
In 2008 the government of Tanzania suffered a rash of negative stories by Western journalists about the killings of albinos, said Peter Ash, founder of Under The Same Sun.
“These centers came in response to the killings. It’s how the government has chosen to respond. The government has basically abandoned these kids,” he said. “There is no long-term plan.”
Holding her 2-month-old baby Jessica on her back in a traditional kanga cloth, Helen Sekalima, 40, sorts dry beans. The dark-skinned mother came to live at the Kabanga Protectorate Center after her newborn infant was threatened.
“The people in the village said that the children are not normal people, that they are like devils,” Sekalima said.
Her husband, Anderson Naimoni, doesn’t agree with the idea of centers where, “our people are being turned into refugees,” he says.
Ash said his group discovered that in some centers emotional and even sexual abuse “was rampant.” His group has informed the government “but they’ll probably do nothing about it,” Ash said.
Experts say staving off attacks from witch doctors is just one of many issues that Tanzania’s albino population must address. Low vision problems complicate schooling, and with little cultural precedent for skin protection rates of skin cancer are high. More than 80 percent will die by age 40 due to skin cancer, Ash said.
In rural northwest Tanzania dried corn stalks sway gently in a field sheltering a concrete slab that protects the grave of 3-year-old Naimana Daudi from grave-robbers. The albino toddler was kidnapped at night and found in pieces in the morning.
A tear slips down the dark cheek of her mother, 30-year-old Angelista Ngarama. After her daughter was killed, Ngarama took her youngest child, Ferister, to the Kabanga Protectorate Center. No one knows when it will be safe enough for the 2-year-old to return home.