One of my favourite places in London is the National Portrait Gallery which houses a study of portraits of some of the most influential people in Britain. Last week, walking through the gallery I was immediately drawn to this piece of artwork by Jerome Lagarrigue. The portrait is of the artist’s friend, the actor and first male albino model, Shaun Ross. Lagarrigue saw Ross standing in front of a cool-toned background in a shaft of light and felt compelled to paint him. He says, ‘It is impossible to overstate the historic misunderstandings of people born with albinism including prejudice, superstitions and hypocrisies’. People with albinism have a reduced amount of melanin or no melanin at all because cells that produce melanin do not work properly as a result of inherited genetic mutations. Depending on the amount of melanin the person has, they may have very pale hair, skin and eyes, although some people with albinism can have brown or ginger hair and skin that can tan. People with albinism also usually have a number of eye conditions such as problems with eyesight, photophobia and involuntary eye movements.
It is estimated that about one in every 17,000 people has some form of albinism and the lifelong condition generally affects both sexes equally. Although rare in the western world, albinism is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa with one Tanzanian in 1,400 being affected. Albinism has long been associated with stigma and superstitions, such as the belief that albinos are curses or ‘ghosts’. Recently, a notion has emerged that albino body parts are good-luck charms or possess magical powers. Witch doctors claim that albino body parts are capable of bringing riches, power and success- and for that, people are willing to pay as much as $3,000 for a limb $75,000 (roughly £50,000) for a whole body. As a result, there have been over 100 albino murders in Tanzania, Burundi, and other parts of Africa in the past decade. People with albinism are regularly attacked by people who chop their limbs off- a grotesque act which either leaves them severely mutilated, or dead. Even the dead are not safe as 16 graves of albinos have been robbed in Africa. Mwigulu Matonange was just 10 when he was attacked by two men as he walked home from school. They chopped off his left arm leaving him in a helpless state of desperation. Mwigulu told IPP Media after the horrific attack, ‘I was held down like a goat about to be slaughtered’. Six-year-old Baraka, whose right arm was hacked off and sold, is one of five children who arrived at Shriner’s Hospital in Philadelphia. The most shocking aspect of this issue is that the ‘enemy’ becomes indistinguishable. Josephat Torner, a campaigner for albino rights who works with the charity Standing Voice, says family members have been involved in planning attacks against people wit albinism. In a country like Tanzania, which is the 25th poorest in the world the lure of making a couple of hundred dollars which is as much as three times the minimum wage earned in Tanzania encourages people to commit these acts of depravity which leads to those with albinism living in fear of others, even from their own families. Children are particularly vulnerable as their innocence is highly valued as they are less likely to defend themselves.
The main suspects are the wealthy politicians and businessmen as they are most likely to have the funds available to pay. With the general election coming up in October, now is one of the most dangerous times to be an albino. The United Nations warned that political campaigners were turning to witch doctors to help them win election back in August. After widespread criticism of its lack of response to the abduction and killings of albinos, the Tanzanian government has moved to outlaw the witch doctors behind the murders. But as to whether it will make a difference for those living in fear for their lives remains to be seen. With the help of AID from developed countries, governments in Tanzania and other countries affected can use the funds to invest in their education sector. An emphasis on education will enable the workforce to attain more highly-paid jobs and there will be less incentive to commit these crimes to earn a small amount of money. However, this is a long-run strategy as benefits to the albino community would only be seen in the future.
Despite this, campaigners such as Jospehat who I mentioned earlier are fighting back now. He risks his life to go into remote villages to explain to people they are not ghosts, but human beings whose bodies will not bring luck. He hopes to continue to campaign and try to raise awareness. This is a form of racism as these innocent people are being targeted, judged and threatened because of their skin colour. Learning about the struggle of people with albinism including Mwigulu and Baraka was both shocking and distressing. Most importantly, the innocence of the children with albinism makes them unaware of the evilness and cruelty of these hunters. It is our responsibility to try to help these people and protect them by raising awareness about these heinous crimes and the immense fears and struggle of the albino people so that the governments involved are forced to take immediate action.
If you would like to donate to help bring safety and treatment to people with albinism in Tanzania please follow the links to ‘Tanzania Albino Charity’ and ‘Southern Africa’s Children UK Charity’ at the end of this post. Shaun Ross, the inspiring first male albino model, believes that beauty is confidence and thought of himself as a ‘confident outcast’. He stated in an interview, ‘It’s really weird to say, but I never thought about my skin being weird. I just know that’s what it was. I never asked myself why I didn’t look like my parents. My mother showed me you have no fear. You let people judge you, but who gives a fuck?’