I once saw a cartoon where the roles of apartheid had been reversed: It showed a black family, fat and happy, lying around a pool, while white servants mowed their lawn, brought their drinks, and generally displayed a downtrodden air of unhappiness. I guess the purpose of the cartoon was to convince people that apartheid was wrong - people still needed convincing back then¹ - but it also illustrates another fact about humanity: Discrimination, it seems, is more colour blind than any of us. It can creep into any human heart and work against any human group that happens to be different.
One group who could tell you a lot more about this are the about 5,000 albinos of Zimbabwe. Albinism is a condition that can normally cause a few inconveniences - a high sensitivity to light, and therefore higher risk of eye trouble and skin cancer; the occasional stare from passers-by. Being born an albino in Zimbabwe, however, is a curse from the beginning.
Parents of albino children may be accused of having invoked the wrath of God, or of their ancestors. In traditional belief, an albino child was seen as a bad omen, or the result of witchcraft, and was often killed soon after birth. These days the consequences are less drastic, but they can be bad enough: The mother may be accused of infidelity, and the father may even abandon his family because of the shame.
Many families keep their children well hidden at home instead of sending them to school because of the stigma attached to them. Those who do go to school, however, face continuing problem. Class mates may point and laugh at them, and since this problem has never really been perceived and dealt with, adults frequently do the same. Needless to say, this causes extremely low self esteem amongst the too-white children. Furthermore, because albinos normally suffer from poor eyesight, they may have a problem reading and therefore learning. In a country like Zimbabwe, many families are too poor to afford the eyeglasses these children need.
After school follows getting a job and starting a family. Life does not fall easily into place here, either. Albino job applicants seem to meet with an invisible barrier, no-one ever has any work for them. Women who try to manage by selling vegetables by the roadside, find that few customers will approach them - they are afraid that the pink skin and white, yellowish hair is somehow contagious. Albinos are seen as somehow unclean, and people also refuse to shake hands with them or eat from the same plate as them.
Because they think albinism is contagious and hereditary, few people want to marry albinos, especially women. In recent times, however, many men have wanted to sleep with albino women - a new rumour says it will cure them from HIV. As a result, several of these women have been raped. While albino men usually manage to find a wife eventually, but women are likely to remain spinsters or become single mothers.
It sounds next to impossible trying to change the prejudices of a whole society directed at such a small group. Yet that is exactly what the Zimbabwe Albino Association (ZIMAS, earlier known as ZAA) is trying to do. Founded in 1996, the organisation has almost no money - a 1998 article² describes their headquarters as naked except for a small chair and a radio. They also lack general support, but make up for it with a lot of optimism, and many concrete ideas about how to improve the state of affairs.
First of all, they want the government to declare albinism a disability. As mentioned above, their light-sensitive eyes require them to wear strong spectacles. They have difficulties reading, and only rarely have a good enough vision to get a driving licence. ZIMAS also suggest the ministry of education provide books with larger print for albinos, so that they can actually read them.
Secondly, they want to improve the health of albinos. They hope to open a medical centre in Harare which will care especially for albinos and their medical problems. ZIMAS also campaign for the government to reduce taxes on sun screen. While dark-skinned Africans are quite well protected against the rays of the equatorial sun, their light cousins are threatened by it. Mainly because of UV-induced skin cancer, life expectancy for albinos in Zimbabwe is 43 years, set against 57 years for the rest of the population.
Finally, and most importantly, ZIMAS want to educate people. It seems a monumental task, but it has got to begin somewhere. The organisation speaks out in television and newspapers. They must be doing something right - I first heard about them on the BBC news web page, and before that I knew very little about the albinos' plight in Africa.
The general populace needs to be told that albinos are not evil, not the carriers of a horrible disease, and don't have miraculous powers, like being able to cure uncurable diseases. Parents of albinos need to learn the importance of protecting their children from the sun, to reduce its damages.
And the albinos themselves need to be taught to have higher self-esteem. That they have as much worth as others needs to be told again and again, for they have learnt often enough that they aren't. Felicity Mwamuka, National Welfare Officer of ZIMAS, provides a good role model for them, however. Calling herself "a white rose of God"³, the strong and out-spoken woman has accepted everyday racism as a way of life and lives on to fight the big issues through the Zimbabwe Albino Association.
If you would like to make a contribution to the association's work, please see http://www.mweb.co.zw/albino/help.htm
¹ There are still people who believe in apartheid or systems closely related to them, but I doubt these people are reachable by cartoons, arguments, love and understanding, or very much else.
² THE MINORITY EVEN DONORS SHUN, IPS/Misa http://www.zebracorn.com/Donors%20Shun.htm