WINNIPEG — A Canadian businessman is trying to save his fellow albinos in Africa from superstition and slaughter.
“It strikes me very personally,” said Paul Ash of Winnipeg. His brother Peter, in Surrey, B.C., founded a registered charity to help Tanzanians with albinism who’ve been shunned and even murdered for their lack of skin pigment.
On Saturday, Under the Same Sun is holding a fundraising event in Winnipeg.
“If I was born in Tanzania, my life would be at risk,” said Ash. “I’d be afraid someone would come in the middle of night and chop off my arm or legs.”
There have been 55 documented murders of Tanzanian albinos in the past two years; most of the victims were women and children, said Ash.
The superstitious believe albinos are ghosts who administer curses; ghouls have harvested their body parts as ingredients for good luck charms. Witch doctors have exploited those beliefs, charging big bucks to the rich and powerful for charms harvested from murdered albinos, said Ash.
In 2008, the United Nations issued a statement saying there had been 173 arrests — including five police officers — linked to albino murders, but the cases weren’t getting to court. The UN demanded that the suspects be prosecuted and the killers brought to justice.
So far, there have only been two prosecutions, resulting in the convictions of a just handful of perpetrators. The stigma of albinism is partly the reason the cases aren’t getting to court, said Ash, who is leaving for Tanzania on April 14. And the country is a hot spot for the genetic disorder, he added.
“Albinism is a lot more prevalent there, with about one in 30,000 here and one in 3,000 there.
“The theory is that the genetic disorder started there and there is some research that indicates that. Because of the stigma and persecution of albinos, there is also more intermarriage.”
Albinism is a rare, genetically inherited disorder that affects people of all races and genders. It results in a lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin and eyes.
In nearly all cases a significant visual impairment is also involved, with most albinos being legally blind.
Albinos have very little natural protection from the sun’s rays and are more susceptible to skin cancer.
An albino marrying an albino guarantees any child they might have would be albino, said Ash. His brother Peter married a non-albino and has a non-albino child.
“As long as one partner does not have the defective gene, then the healthy gene is dominant.”
His brother started Under the Same Sun to raise awareness in Tanzania and tell people the truth about albinism. They’ve set up an office in the capital Dar es Salaam with a staff of 16 — mostly albino employees — doing media relations and public education, said Ash.
Tanzania is a fairly stable country with good people and the average person on the street there would abhor the attacks on albinos but probably not take action, he said.
“We’re fighting for their hearts and minds, and to put to bed a lot of myths.”
Under the Same Sun has produced brochures and is making a feature-length documentary in English and Swahili to distribute in churches, mosques and schools, and to any group that will screen it. They’re sponsoring the education of albino children and young adults in the hope that the leaders of tomorrow will be more enlightened.
“We want to work hard to help young people with albinism succeed. Ultimately they become the leaders in society.”
© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service
By Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press