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Spotlight: How Those With Albinism Face Stigma And Violence In Malawi

In southeast Africa, Malawi has seen a steep surge of violence against people with Albinism, “or, as our listeners may know, Albinos,” said Peter Ash. 

He added: “We use the term ‘persons with Albinism’ to humanize the genetic condition.”

Ash, who also has Albinism, is the founder and CEO of Under the Same Sun, a non-governmental organization working to fight against the stigmatization of people living with Albinism. 

Reports said that more than 115 people have been attacked in Malawi in the past two years, leaving 20 of them dead. 

Ash spoke with Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell to discuss the flurry of violence. Below are highlights from their conversation.

On the history of the stigmatism in Africa

Peter Ash: There’s been a belief in most of sub-Saharan Africa for hundreds, if not thousands of years, that if a child is born with this condition he is somehow subhuman. He is not equal to others. … A deep-seeded belief in witchcraft exists in a large number of these countries, and witch doctors have a great deal of influence in the rural communities — in the many tribes in eastern, western, southern Africa. And so this belief has existed for a long time that, “This being must be someone that doesn’t belong in our tribe. They must be a European ghost. They must be subhuman. They must be somehow magical.” And so the stigma and the discrimination — the isolation — that people like myself have experienced, in those countries, has been around for a long time. 

On the limits of government protections instituted in Malawi in 2015

Ash: The protections you’re speaking of are really an increase in government awareness. The protections really aren’t that significant. It’s difficult to protect a large number of persons with Albinism, most of whom live in very remote, rural areas. So unless you’re going to have police on duty 24 hours a day patrolling remote villages — which is near-impossible in a developing country in a rural area … the government can make strong statements. They can attempt to do their best to round up and prosecute offenders as a deterrent. When we talk about protections it’s really an attempt to intervene in those ways, but actual on-the-ground protection is very, very difficult to implement, given the situation.

On the gruesomeness of the attacks 

Ash: They take the limbs and the blood, the hair and other bodily organs, they collect them in a bag, and they take them away and they sell them. These are henchmen or killers hired by people practicing witchcraft, who meet with consumers — wealthy individuals, politicians, business people who want to become wealthy and successful — and the witch doctor says, “To do that you have to bring me the body part of a person with Albinism,” which they wouldn’t dignify them by calling them that. They would consider them a ghost.

On improving the situation

Jerome McDonnell: How do you go into a situation like this and change it? If people’s beliefs are so deep-seeded, how do you try to break the spell there?

Ash: Our two chief goals are Albinism-related. Advocacy and public awareness — that’s number one — so getting on the ground doing what we call “Understanding Albinism” seminars. We go into the villages where the killings and the attacks are happening, we get community leaders together — religious leaders, school teachers, doctors, police — and we conduct a large-scale public seminar. We say, “These people are not ghosts. They’re human beings.” We bring staff members that have Albinism that are highly-educated with university degrees and say, “Look, they are your fellow human beings, your fellow neighbors.” … And it’s amazing how in that process a lot of the ignorance quite rapidly falls away.

The second thing we do beyond the advocacy piece is we do an educational program. We have in the country of Tanzania 250 students with Albinism that we put into private, English-medium schools that are of high academic quality to show society. Fifty of our graduates are already gainfully employed in very significant careers. So when you go into the bank and your banker has Albinism, or you go into the school and your school teacher has Albinism, it will become increasingly difficult to believe that they are cursed ghosts. So it’s a long-term multi-generational process of ending stigma and discrimination. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment.

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