During my final week in Tanzania, something different happened in school. As our dalla approached the familiar building we could already sense something out of the ordinary. I felt very bizarre: a sensation like those in movies where a mystical character senses that something is not right. It took us all by surprise, some reacting positively, some negatively, when we walked in to find a lonely girl sitting on the very edge of the desk. She was covered from head to toe in a pink puffy jacket with a hood, leggings, socks and gloves enclosing every inch of her body, and we knew there was only one reason for this. Both her body language, and that of the other students confirmed my guess: an albino girl, around the age of eight, attentively awaiting class to begin.
I would love to say that all us volunteers had a respectable and calmed reaction, but we didn’t. Since not all volunteers have been in Africa before, I don’t think they were that aware or expectant of seeing albinos: their natural reaction was to become very uncomfortable and attempt ignoring her. On the contrary, my natural instinct was to approach her (be it in Maa, Swahili or English): I felt a sense of compassion that intrigued me, that pulled me closer to her and made me want to include her to the best of my ability. She was sitting alone, on the corner of the outer-most desk with no one around her or beside her. All of the other students had moved down the rows and squished themselves together on other desks so as not to sit beside her. All I remember thinking or feeling was disgust at how these children were reacting to her. It is so engrained in their culture/belief/experience that albinos are outsiders that, as children, they’re already believing it, and acting that way.
Awkward. That is the only word that describes that day the best. Awkward among students, between students and volunteers, between volunteers, between the entire community present that day. The entire day was pretty much shaded by her presence, which to me was the most unfortunate sensation: the sweetest looking face, the brightest blue eyes. Class, as much as Alice and I tried, didn’t occur has normal or planned since the children were so distracted by her presence. She didn’t say a word all day, nor did she make distinct eye contact, but she still had such a power over everyone. I was appalled, and it made me genuinely feel sad…a sadness I don’t think I’ve felt before. If there is one attitude I don’t tolerate, it’s that of inacceptance. And it’s those kinds of feelings I intend to defy by working in education and children’s education reform: intercultural acceptance, communication and understanding can only occur succesfully through education. These children need to learn that alienation is not ok.
“Albinism”, as it’s known, is a congenital disorder that causes an absence in pigmentation of the skin, hair and eyes. It’s basically what occurs due to a lack of melanin in one’s genes, producing a much paler or whiter skin and, as a result, makes a person more susceptible to skin diseases and sunburns. There is treatment, rehab and special attention that can be given to albinos, especially for their sensitive skin and their deteriorating eye sight. When this occurs in a predominantly dark-skinned culture like in East Africa, it’s considered an infectious disease that can be contracted even from a skin-to-skin touch. Particularly in Tanzania and Burundi, many albinos are drastically marginalized, hunted and killed by witch doctors, who use albinos for medicines. I think it’s frankly a frightening belief that needs to be changed.
Editor’s note: For more information about albinism in Tanzania and how to help our Tanzanian neighbors, please visit Under the Same Sun at http://www.underthesamesun.com/ and Asante Mariamu at http://www.asante-mariamu.org. Both these organizations work to advocate for and support people with albinism in Tanzania and other countries.
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Featured photo from: freerepublic.com