In Africa, albinism can feel like a death sentence; the Church is trying to change that

Emmanuel Rutema and Baraka Lusambo, Tanzanian youths with albinism who had limbs chopped off in witchcraft rituals, talk as they take part in an art class in the Staten Island borough of New York City Jan. 28, 2019. (CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- In Malawi, like in other African countries, body parts of people with albinism are used in witchcraft-related rituals. The Catholic Church and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have intensified campaigns, especially in rural areas, to sensitize communities on the rights of those with albinism and construct houses for them that are safe from burglary.

Moses Chalimba and his wife, Nancy Mawaya, who are from the town of Machinga in southern Malawi, have two children who were born with albinism and know firsthand the danger of raising a child with albinism.

"It’s tormenting to have an albino child in this country. It's like living in hell," Chalimba told OSV News by phone from southern Malawi. "Sometimes we question God for blessing us with such children because of the problems we go through as parents. Some of us live in our world without anyone wanting to associate with us, and the few who come closer to you have one intention: to kill your children."

Chalimba said there had been attempted attacks on his daughters, ages 13 and 7, by unknown people looking for their body parts, which are believed to have magical powers and bring good luck.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, people living with albinism suffer from abnormal skin pigmentation due to an inability to produce melanin in their skin cells. Melanin is a dark pigment that is responsible for producing skin, hair and eye coloration. People with albinism have extremely pale skin, eyes and hair. They are at an increased risk of vision, skin and social issues.

In African countries, however, the medical conditions associated with albinism do not pose the biggest risk.

In Malawi, like in other countries across the continent, body parts from a person with albinism can be used to make charms that, according to superstition, are believed to bring wealth, good luck, health and supernatural powers.

Chalimba said one of his children's right hand is still paralyzed after she was attacked two years ago in the middle of the night. He said the lack of a good and secure house made it easier for criminals to break into their house and injure his albino daughter. Most residents in Malawi, especially in rural areas, live in traditional mud hut houses with grass-thatched roofs.

"I need help: a good house and some little resources to care for my two daughters," Chalimba said. "We live in fear because we can be attacked anytime, and my daughters will be murdered. But when I get a good house, those criminals will not easily break into my house."

Apart from awareness campaigns in which it partners with other NGOs, the Catholic Church also tries to improve the lives of people with albinism by enabling them to access dermatology and other health care services, helping them to start businesses, providing education scholarships, and fighting stigma within communities.

The United Nations estimates that one in 130 people in Malawi have albinism -- 134,000 in total. Statistics show that since 2014, more than 170 people living with albinism have been killed or maimed in attacks.

Charles Banda, a catechist from the Archdiocese of Blantyre in southern Malawi, said the body parts of a person with albinism could fetch a high price, ranging from $500 for a limb to $80,000 for a complete set of body parts. Blantyre is Malawi's commercial and industrial center.

Banda said that attacks on albino people are aggravated by poverty and superstition in the country. According to the recent World Bank Poverty Assessment Report, 50.7% of the Malawian population of nearly 20 million people are poor, with almost no difference from a decade ago.

The sums that can be paid for body parts of an albino person equals "a lot of money in Malawi," Banda told OSV News. "It’s the amount of money that can get anyone out of poverty. So people looking to escape poverty always form or join criminal gangs to attack and kill people with albinism to get those body parts and sell them to witch doctors," he said.

Banda said people living with albinism in the country face numerous challenges, including attacks, social alienation and lack of medical care.

"Most cannot even go to school or social places because no one is ready to interact with them. Most people think their skin color can be transmitted by interacting with people with albinism," he said.

Stella Chiwaya, a student living with albinism in Blantyre, agreed. Due to the stigma associated with her skin color, she cannot go to school or walk outside their house freely like other children.

"When I go out in public, people call me a ghost, and others call me a white person," said the 17-year-old, noting that she also fears for her life whenever she walks outside, especially at night.

"Some people tell me I am cursed and have no reason to continue living. They tell me my presence will bring many calamities to the community, like deaths, famine and drought."

The Catholic Church in Malawi has renewed its commitment to ending violence and all forms of human rights abuses that people with albinism face in various places in the country.

Bishops, priests, catechists and other religious leaders have been meeting chiefs, village elders, traditional healers and school head teachers to train them on how best they can contribute toward improving the lives of people with albinism through access to justice and health care services.

Archbishop George Desmond Tambala, president of the Malawian bishops' conference, said the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of protecting the rights of people with albinism and assisting them access health care, education and other basic services.

"We have the responsibility as a church to protect people living with albinism so that they don't continue living in fear," he told OSV News. "We have for many years engaged community leaders like chiefs, teachers and priests to ensure they advocate for these people's rights and help them access health care services."

Archbishop Tambala noted that people needed to be "human and treat each other with dignity" and abandon retrogressive cultures meant to harm other people at the expense of "false fortunes." He said that through the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), the church has been conducting nationwide workshops to debunk myths and raise awareness of the rights of people with albinism.

"People with albinism are seriously suffering, and their rights are being violated by people who don't value human life," he said, noting that training has been ongoing for the last two years to ensure they end any form of discrimination against people with albinism.

"We have been conducting workshops everywhere and using the platforms we have, like during the masses and other gatherings, to make the communities aware that a person with albinism is equal to every human being and should be treated with dignity."



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