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Albinism on the streets of Nairobi

 Street News Service 23 January 2019

She sits on a filthy pavement that runs along Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi, near the city’s ancient fire station. She holds a baby, probably a few months old. She begs passers-by for change and a few people drop coins in her hat. She knows that the reason they give is not the baby, but something else: her skin colour. (989 Words) - By Rosa Parks

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SNS_Albinism on the streets of Nairobi

National Coordinator of the Albinism Society of Kenya Mr. Mwaura M. Isaac. Photo courtesy of Rosa Parks

The stares and glances thrown the women's way are not the usual. Other homeless mothers living rough on the streets of Nairobi are rarely given a second look let alone any donations from passers-by. Street mothers - as they are called in Kenyan lingua - are actually despised because society believes that they choose to live rough; that they have homes to go to but choose to live on the streets begging instead of working for their upkeep.

But this street mother is different. It is her skin colour that draws sympathizers as well as curiosity from others.  Some call her "mzungu" (Kiswahili for white people) while others call her chotara (a colloquial Kenyan name for people of mixed race).  She is actually neither a white nor a chotara. She is a person born with Albinism, a condition whereby people have little or no pigment in their eyes, skin, or hair.

The woman refuses to talk about herself and flatly refuses to have her picture taken. This is Nairobi and I have no idea who is watching over her and whether they would follow me and harass or harm me for "exposing" her.  Someone tells me later that the woman is not even Kenyan, that she is from Tanzania and had travelled to Kenya for probably two reasons: one being that she believed she would be safer in Kenya, and secondly, that she could gain economically by begging on the streets of Nairobi.

Whatever the truth, people with Albinism face discrimination at many levels in East Africa. There are a myriad of myths perpetrated about people with Albinism. Most of these myths are negative and are associated with cultural beliefs abound in African communities regarding people born with disabilities such as Albinism.

The National Coordinator of the Albinism Society of Kenya, Mwaura  M. Isaac, was born with Albinism and shares an insight into the real life threats that Albinos face in their daily lives. Mwaura says that in Tanzania many communities believe that people with Albinism are supernatural and that their body parts can be used by witchdoctors to make concoctions that can make one wealthy.

As a result of this belief, a number of gruesome reports about the killings of persons with Albinism in Tanzania were reported between 2007 and 2009 which drew worldwide attention to the gross violations of the human rights of this group of marginalized people. The Tanzanian Government was forced to respond and quickly mobilized awareness campaigns as well as giving people with Albinism high profile public offices.

In addition, Tanzanian courts imposed harsh sentences on witchdoctors who had been found guilty of engaging in the killing and dismembering of persons with Albinism. The government also banned the term "zeruzeru", a very derogatory term that Tanzanians used to describe persons with Albinism.

Other beliefs and myths about persons with Albinism include false claims that they have cats eyes; that they have a cure for HIV and that if one has sex with them, they can be cured of Aids.

In Kenya, Mwaura recalls an incident that shook the country in 2010 when a young Kenyan man with Albinism called Robinson Mukhwana was lured by his own friend to accompany him to Tanzania in the hope of finding a job. Robinson never suspected that his friend had other intentions and innocently accompanied him, and he only escaped being murdered for his body parts after being rescued by police in Tanzania whose awareness to such crimes had been heightened following the gruesome killings in their country.

Mwaura narrates these incidents with a pained look on his face as he points out that although many of the killings were carried out in Tanzania and Burundi, the threat to persons with Albinism is very real in Kenya. He says: "I recall one time being at a petrol station in Nairobi and listening in on a conversation by some people actually discussing how they would kill a person with Albinism, and I was terrified. And several times I have been out on the streets and clearly hear people saying, 'there goes money', in reference to the belief that using our body parts through witchcraft would make them rich."

Mwaura says Kenya has been slow to act compared to her neighbours Tanzania and Uganda who have stringent laws protecting the rights of people with Albinism. The one advantage that came from the incidents in Tanzania, Mwaura says, was that parents and society in general are now starkly aware of the dangers that people with Albinism face. Mwaura regrets that the Albinism Society of Kenya is poorly staffed and funded and cannot adequately provide all the support that people with Albinism need in order to live their lives with dignity.

He regrets that there is no hotline or helpline that members of the public or people with Albinism can use in case of emergencies. However, he does highlight some of the achievements of the society: successful advocacy work; provision of free sunscreen lotion and encouragement of parents to take their children to school. He said the society also managed to organize and celebrate the first ever Albinism Day in Kenya which took place on May 4, 2019.

The event mainly created awareness and he hopes it can become an annual date in the calendar. Although there are no official government statistics, Mwaura estimates that the number of people with Albinism in Kenya could be about 30,000. He stresses there is need for the government to conduct research in order to help this group of marginalized people.

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