Growing up as an albino child was no easy feat for Josephat Torna. He was born in a polygamous family and the unyielding undertones from all sectors made life a nightmare for him.
Cases of albino’s being merchandised in Tanzania is not a new thing and the fact that he came from a polygamous family did not make things any easier. For him, this was just a tip of the iceberg for the life of an albino child in Tanzania.
Albinism originates from a Latin word Albus meaning white. It is a congenital condition that is characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Albinism results from inheritance of recessive gene alleles and is known to affect all vertebrates including humans. Therefore an organism with complete absence of melanin is called an albino. Albinism is associated with a number of vision defects, such as photophobia, nystagmus, and astigmatism. Lack of skin pigmentation makes for more susceptibility to sunburn and skin cancers. (Wikipedia).
The 34 year old father of two dark skinned children notes that in an African context, albino children are frowned upon. “My father had 5 wives and 25 children. I faced a lot of tribulations that included being discriminated upon because of my skin color with people giving me weird looks,” he narrated. “People don’t think that we are 100% beings, they look at us like lesser beings, like ghosts,” attest Torna.
He says that there were many dissenting voices from the larger family and outsiders too but the mother was not moved and she took good care of him.
Albinism is an issue that has recently been highlighted in the media in view of the fact that people suffering from this condition have been under attack and especially in Tanzania. The sad reality is that in the 21st century, people still believe in witchcraft and wizardry and the benefits therein that motivates then to kill albino’s with the notion that they will get unimaginable wealth. The world is a global village, but the sad reality is that the villager in us is very evident in the mannerisms characterized by people high and mighty vis a vis in the lower cadres of society.
Torna blames many families for hiding their albino children as they are ashamed of them. “In my case, my mother was able to take good care of me. However, many people wanted me to be isolated but my mother could hear none of it. Social interactions were however, quite difficult because of the notion that people have of albino’s. I was lucky as I was able to attend normal school and interacted with other people well,” says Torna.
Cases of children’s education being discontinued for fear of victimization are a common occurrence. Torna says that fear is still rife as albinos are still being hunted by the people who want to use their body parts to enrich themselves. He says that many have left their rural homes to come to the city as security is perceived to be better there. He is however saddened by the fact that in the city, they are now in camps surviving in unfavourable conditions.
“In Kigoma we see cases of children being put in camps, In Shinyanga the cases are the same due to the injustices being meted on albino’s and especially in the rural areas. Where is this justice that we keep on talking about? It is sad that families are breaking up because of this issue. We see people exhuming bodies of albino’s seeking their body parts, where is justice here?” ponders Mr. Torna.
Mr. Torna who was speaking to participants during a church leader’s conference at CORAT called upon the church leaders to stand up and be counted and be on the forefront of ensuring that the vice is a thing of the past and offer protection to albinos.
He laments that he cannot trust anyone, even his brothers and sisters. He says that politicians, parents, brothers and sisters as well as church leaders are all involved in the trade of albino’s which has seen them being sold like commodities.
“As I stand here, I am also scared. I cannot trust anyone. If you visit the people in Tanzania, they are living in fear. I sometimes also find it hard to trust my brothers and sisters. I remember speaking to church leaders last year and I told them that the devil is under their feet. They did not believe me and soon enough a pastor was found with body parts of an albino. The pastor who is now serving an 8 year jail term was found with parts of an albino in his briefcase travelling to the border of Zambia,”narrated Joseph.
“All we are looking for is justice. Respected people are being implicated day in day out as they engage in the business of selling albino’s. Where is the unstoppable force, how can we be the unstoppable force yet we are the ones committing these crimes?”
Reported cases of albino’s who have lost their lives stands at 66, notes Torna. In Kenya the incidences are not very much heard of except for a case of one person who was transported to Tanzania for what may have been witchcraft and riches related scenario. “When we speak of the unstoppable force, where is the church, what role does it play in ensuring that no more albino’s are maimed?” he ponders.
Activism – Torna has been able to organize a lot of activities that seek to empower the albino’s while seeking to protect their human rights and dignity. Recently, he was able to organize a mountain climbing event at Mt. Kilimanjaro as he perceived it as a platform to send the message across. That it was high time that the church leaders, vis a vis the African leaders took action and be counted as crusaders for human rights.
Mr. Torna says that climbing the mountain was no easy feat but he is glad that he was able to win over his detractors. It took a total of 8 days for him and his team to climb the mountain. He was accompanied by 35 porters, 2 doctors – eye and skin specialists – as well as 2 film makers from BBC London.
As part of his activism against human rights violation, in 2009 the activist sought the attention of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He says that he wanted to make aware to the world the kind treatment that albino’s in Tanzania were receiving. He says that he was able to put across his worries to Mr. Ban Ki Moon and told him that the UN was responsible for all human beings and he was glad that he eventually travelled to Tanzania and currently the cases dealing with albino’s are being treated seriously. He notes that there are people facing court actions for their involvement in albino body arts. Some he says have been sentenced between 8-10 years.
He has also been able to organize a National peace walk demonstration. He remembers receiving threatening texts as he was organizing the walk as he was warned to “stop shouting” which he says he responded by stating categorically that could not stop until justice was done.
He has also been able to give presentations in Finland and the UK on issues afflicting minorities and the challenges facing the albinos.
Mr. Torna was also able to meet over 500 traditional healers who came together to listen to him. He says that he did not meet them waving placards and knives but rather he used a dialogue approach to enlighten the traditionalists on matters to do with human rights.
In 2009 he also took his government to court over the killings seeking them to answer questions on why it had failed to protect its citizens. The sad reality is that the people responsible are very inhuman as they chop albino’s their body parts while they are still alive. He has met his president as well as the Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda as well as other government officials and he says this has been helpful.
He urges the church leaders to always be the salt of the earth, that when the world has no answers, the body of Christ shall be the answer as he requested for prayers at the workshop at CORAT.
He says he was accompanied by two policemen from Tanzania who ensured that he was safe.
Reverend John Gichimu from the OAIC was perturbed that pastors were also implicated in the albino’s trade. He says cases if inhumanity against albinos was not heard of in the past and until recently when the media started highlighting the cases that it became common knowledge. He stated that the cases needed to be taken seriously and for justice to be seen to be done.
Torna notes that there is need to put up special courts for cases concerning albinos. Other countries that have reported similar concerns include Burundi and Senegal. In Zimbabwe for example, it is believed that getting intimate with an albino woman will cure a man of HIV.
“Why are people resorting to witchcraft for riches? They are using other people created in God’s image. What is this power that they are looking for? We need to question ourselves,” ponders the General Secretary Nicta Lubaale
He states that hundreds of children in Uganda are being taken to witchdoctors for people who want power. In Kenya we have seen instances where having grey hair in some areas is seen as a bad thing and some old people are being labelled as witches and wizards. The church has a big role to play and ensure that these happenings are a thing of the past. As a church preaching the prosperity gospel is not bad but somehow it may be sending the wrong signals out there as people’s major concern may be to get rich and not necessarily real life transformation.
A documentary titled In the Shadow of the Sun is currently being finalized. Torna says the documentary has been shot since 2006 and is basically on the life and times of an albino. It will largely feature his journey as an albino, his activism, as well as torture. Some of the people that he is working closely with is the BBC. Some of the countries that have already requested to be included in the launch of the documentary include the USA – ITV – Channel, ABC, BBC London, Danish TV, Finish TV, France as well as Japan. He hopes that it will also be aired across the East African region which he hopes will be able to sensitize people on the issue.
He says that he would like people to appreciate albinos as normal people who have potential to be great persons in society. He is currently undertaking a degree in leadership and Management at a University in Dar-es-Salaam. He has also been a teacher for sometime before deciding to concentrate on Advocacy and Liaison activities.
He says that the problem currently facing them will not be solved by the international community but by Africans themselves.
By: Fiona Imbali, OAIC Communications