Hope in the shadow of Kilimanjaro for kids with Albinism

In the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro a courageous woman and her team arrive at one of the local schools. From across the courtyard children come running to hug and welcome her! There is joy and gratitude splashed across their faces as they giggle and embrace.

This scenario may be very common around the world: a woman being welcomed by excited schoolchildren. But if you pay attention there are a number of characteristics that make this unique.

Each of these kids wear long sleeves. They all wear big floppy hats. And most striking is that here, in Tanzania where most have skin with darker tones, these children have very pale skin.

These are children born with albinism.

Tanzania has the highest rate of albinism in the world. This genetic condition affects 1 in 1429 births in the country. Officials believe that there may be anywhere from 25,000 to 150,000 total adults and kids with the condition in the nation.

The woman gathering up the kids at this school is the joyful and gracious Sister Martha Mganga. Martha was born with albinism and she grew up in northern Tanzania. She faced psychological and emotional abuse from her father as well as from her neighbors. At one point she even attempted suicide because of the abuse and stigma related to her condition. She faces constant threats of violence and danger.

Martha’s abuse and persecution sadly are not an anomaly in the region. Discrimination against people with albinism is widespread across East Africa. But it is especially acute in Tanzania. Since the year 2000, more than 75 people with albinism were killed. People with albinism are bullied, killed at birth, shamed, beaten, chased from school, discriminated against, and a number are maimed or killed for body parts to be used for witchcraft and superstitious beliefs. There is a vile idea that the body parts of these people will bring success and wealth.

It is a terrible problem.

But after an explosion in deaths and persecution throughout the early 2000’s, many governments, NGOs, and local leaders in Tanzania began to fight back and seek protection and justice for the Albino population. The government began to direct national campaigns to protect the population.

Sister Martha and her team are part of this effort. Together they run a ministry called Albino Peacemakers from the city of Arusha, Tanzania. They provide direct advocacy and care for several dozen children and national advocacy for thousands more. They published a film titled “Watu Kama Sisi” (or People Like Us) to spread the message that people with albinism are normal people without any special magical powers.

In recent years they’ve even been working on direct talks with representatives from the group of local traditional healers in order to directly address these dangerous superstitions at their source.

The children cared for by the team have faced horrific circumstances. Many were locked up at home. Many were attacked violently by family members or neighbors. Many were kept from school and harassed. The trauma and pain has been intense. But under the gentle love and care of the Albino Peacemaker team, many of the children are now making significant progress in their emotional and spiritual recovery. Many of the families are now beginning to accept and love their kids with albinism.

Lahash International is currently exploring a partnership with the Albino Peacemaker’s ministry.

Sister Martha has visited two Lahash conferences and loves what she sees in the ministry. She explained how she appreciates Lahash’s vision for evangelism and discipleship for all the kids (Martha was trained as an evangelist in her church). She also loves the idea of holistic care – where children are cared for in all aspects of their lives. She told the Lahash team that their local team has been praying for a potential partnership with Lahash for many years.

An initial exploratory grant from Lahash is currently providing funds for the local team to conduct home visits, provide 25 children with school supplies, and provide medical care and advocacy for kids living with albinism.

On the second day of our recent visit, the Albino Peacemaker’s team held a distribution for the kids at the local school. Each of the kids received a new uniform and shoes. The kids were incredibly grateful for the gifts.

One of the team members in Arusha is an Oregonian from Kalamath Falls. Terry Morton initially worked with Sister Martha through a partnership with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). She’s continued working with Martha and the team even after the partnership came to a close recently.

Terry conducted a survey of the Tanzanian Albino population and came to some startling conclusions. All of the people with albinism in the nation face harm to their bodies. But an even greater concern was the stigma and discrimination as well as concerns about harm from the sun. Without the melanin in the skin, this population faces peeling skin, chapped lips, poor eyesight, and most will die of skin cancer by the time they are 40. Terry explained to the team how each of these concerns need to be urgently addressed.

As the sun began to set in Arusha, the Lahash team joined together with the kids in the school courtyard (next to the nearly 100 year old school tortoise!) and prayed and worshiped. The children shared some beautiful hymns and choruses as they praised God for his goodness and love. In our circle, everyone was “watu kama sisi” – people like us. We were all equal and loved by God.

There is hope here in Arusha. Hope in Christ. And hope in his church and in his people acting with courage and compassion in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.