Albinism: Colour-free, Beautiful & Hunted

Authored by: Elizabeth Mbekeka

Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that causes one’s skin, hair, or eyes to have little or no colour-producing pigment called melanin. There are many forms of albinism and the common ones include pale skin, blurred vision or eye’s high sensitivity to light and lightly colored hair.

Melanin’s primary function is to act as a natural sunscreen, protecting the skin and eyes from damage by harmful ultraviolet rays from solar radiation. The albino population encounters health-related and social challenges accruing from the absence of melanin that gives them a unique appearance. 

Firstly, their risk of skin damage and developing skin cancer is much higher and hence, they must ensure limited exposure to the sun. This is commonly achieved through wearing wide-brimmed hats, applying sunscreens with Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more, wearing long sleeved clothes, sunglasses or staying indoors during daytime. 

The above precautions are necessary but have also proven expensive in some albino communities. Sunscreen lotions are expensive and in Africa, most are imported raising their retail price. Regular skin checkups and monitoring of their condition are still inadequate owing to the poor health infrastructures and inadequate funding for this in rural Africa. 

Secondly, albinism poses other health challenges such as vision defects and susceptibility to infections. The lack of pigment in the eyes makes them more sensitive to light and can result in nystagmus  or dancing eyes condition, which impairs accurate vision. One research study linked albinism to reduced ability to fight infections as melanin is also a key component in the biochemical functioning of immune cells. 

Secondly, albinos commonly face discrimination from society owing to their appearance and the need to wear protective clothing. They are bullied, endure inconsiderate and ignorant questions which push many into self-isolation, developing low self-esteem and stress.  

Thirdly, albinism is sometimes a cue for death in Africa where superstitions and ignorance are still prevalent. Many albino babies are murdered at birth with the pathetic excuse that this will save them and their families from becoming societal outcasts. Those who live longer do so in fear of being harmed or hunted for black magic rituals. 

Tanzania has the largest population of albinos in Africa, approximately 1 in every 1,400 births and not surprisingly, records the highest torture of albinos.  Their body parts are believed to bring wealth and good luck and therefore, they are hunted down, killed, and parts of their bodies sold for use in witchcraft. 

It remains a sad case that a hereditary condition is cause for ridicule and that acceptance is still based on appearance. Albinos are still capable human beings, entitled to equal treatment and safety in their communities.  It helps to be more supportive, positive, loving, and protective of people living with albinism, after all, it is not a situation that they choose to have.

[Edited by: Liz Mweru]