Two organizations in Malawi are working to improve the lives of people with albinism -- a genetic condition that results in little or no production of skin pigment. Melanin determines the color of your skin, hair and eyes and influences the development of certain optical nerves. Some albinos are considered disabled because their vision problems are very severe. Direct sunlight can cause pain, blisters, even skin cancer in albinos. But dermatologists say ointment and clothing can protect them from the sun.
Today, a pilot project by the Netherlands-based charity the African Albinos Foundation is producing a topical ointment applied to the skin known as suncream to protect them. Timothy Somanje is the general secretary of the Albino Association of Malawi. He says the effort is making a difference, “It has assisted a lot because most people with albinism come from rural areas and cannot afford to buy a bottle of this lotion.”
He says under the project, the ointment is distributed free of charge to albinos living mainly in southern Malawi. About 300 of Malawi’s estimated one million albinos have benefitted. Somanje says if the one-year trial is successful, everyone who needs it will have access to the ointment.
Another organization that’s helping albinos is “Raising Malawi,” which was founded by the American pop star Madonna to help the underprivileged. The group helps albinos protect themselves against the sun by giving them items like long sleeved shirts, sunhats and sunglasses, making it possible for albino children to go to school. But Somanje says no medication can treat the social stigma, discrimination and prejudice.
Somanje says attacks on albinos in other parts of Africa have stirred fear among those in Malawi. In Tanzania, traditional doctors are reported to have sold body parts of albinos as good luck charms. As a result, in some parts of Africa, albinos are being hunted like animals.
Recent media reports from Tanzania say traditional doctors were using the body parts as charms to help them get rich. Last December, more than 40 albinos were reportedly killed in Tanzania. Somanje says,“When they see the albinos they say ‘I can get rich because of this person. I can take him to Tanzania so by the end of the day I can be rich.’ This is a mockery to us but we feel we can fight against this so that what happened in Tanzania cannot happen here in Malawi.”
He says Raising Malawi brings together traditional leaders and other authorities for awareness meetings about albinos. Somanje adds that there has been no reported cases of albino abuse in Malawi.
African history contains stories and myths describing albinism – stories that have changed over centuries. One suggests that albinism is the product of Africans mating with wild animals or water spirits. In some places in South Africa people with albinism are referred to as ‘nkau,’ which means monkey. Another myth in Malawi says babies are born with albinism because of witchcraft.