07 Jun Becoming A Peacemaker
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
The story of one woman’s courageous journey to release the burdens of a painful past, and build a future of peace for children with albinism in Tanzania.
by Jen Johnson
As Sister Martha Edmundi Mganga walks through the large iron gate of Arusha School and makes her way down the lane, she is quickly surrounded by a happy parade of kids in floppy sun hats. She settles in the shade of a tree while they shower her with greetings and stories. Some have schoolwork to show her, some have minor injuries in need of sympathy, some are just full of silliness. All of them have hugs. Whatever heavy emotional load Sister Martha may have been carrying as she entered the gate, it is lifted by the free-flowing love and laughter of the children.
Growing up with albinism in Tanzania is demoralizing and dangerous, so the children’s light-hearted play reminds her that they are finding the safety, security, and peace she wants so desperately for them. It’s what she wants for every child with albinism in Tanzania, because she knows the deep pain and sorrow of existing without it.
Growing Up A Burden
“The first thing I remember which happened and made me to see that I’m different,” Sister Martha reflects, “is the misunderstanding in my family. I heard my father speaking to my mother, ‘I can’t have such a child like that. Where have you gotten that child? That is not my child.’”
Albinism is a genetic condition characterized primarily by a lack of melanin in the body. Tanzania has the highest rate of albinism anywhere in the world. Sadly, there is also a long history of marginalizing people with albinism through harmful myths, discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, isolation, and even maiming or killing. Martha and her younger sister were the only people with albinism in her family, and although her mother loved her and cared for her well, many other life experiences convinced Martha that she was not only different, but unlovable because of it.
Martha was given the opportunity to attend elementary school, unlike many children with albinism. Her vision was very poor, due to the ways albinism inhibits the development of the optic nerve in utero. She remembers having a teacher for three years who completely ignored her, and yet she felt lucky because he allowed her to sit at the very front so she could at least see the lessons on the chalkboard. A new teacher came the fourth year. He did not ignore her, but verbally shamed her and forced her to sit at the very back of the classroom. Unable to see the lessons, she was then punished for not completing her work. “That made me to see that I’m different, but I didn’t know why I was different,” she remembers. “I started to keep a lot of pain in my heart.”
Martha was also keenly aware of the suffering her mother endured. People made constant derogatory comments, even questioning why money was being wasted to educate a child “who will not live long.” And whether out of fear, hatred, or superstition, many landlords evicted them suddenly and seemingly without cause. When her mother had to spend nights outside without shelter, Martha knew it was because of her. She felt compassion for her mother, realizing that her very presence in the family made everything more difficult.
“I was raised in a Christian family by name. We went to church for Christmas and Easter. We lived far from the church, and my parents did not know how to read or write. Those few days we went to church, I was really listening to what the pastor was preaching.” With so much stigmatization and abuse in her life, she was grasping for hope. “I wanted to go just to hear the words God loves you. God is love.” She longed to know if this God might even be able to love someone like her.
Desperate For Peace
By young adulthood, Martha was more fully aware of the dangerous beliefs people held about people like her. Because she had not been educated about her own condition, she wasn’t even sure they were lies. Is it true that I am not really a human? Will I disappear and reappear somewhere else like people say? Am I actually a curse from God? She also knew some people believed that the body parts of people with albinism were magical and could bring good fortune, which caused fear for her own safety.
Around the age of 21, the weight of it all became too much. “I really reached that bad decision that I better die so that my mother will rest.” Martha believed that her death would relieve her mother of an unbearable burden. She saw only conflict and hardship ahead, and started watching for possible ways to end her life. Maybe in death, her soul and her family would finally find peace.
“I looked for a rope to hang myself. I didn’t find one. I looked for a poison, I didn’t find that. So I decided to go and throw myself to the river which was full of water.” With the weight of all she had endured threatening to crush her, she hoped the river would sweep all the burdens away forever. When she somehow survived the suicide attempt, she despaired that even God did not want her.
But in that moment of heaviest darkness, Martha says, “I heard a voice speaking to me. ‘Don’t be afraid. I love you!’ When I heard that voice, it was like someone came and took out of me a very heavy burden, and I was relaxed.” Finally, she found the sense of peace that had eluded her for so long.
This new reality was the opposite of anything she had imagined. She was still alive, and God had spoken to her. Far from not wanting her, God had proclaimed love for her! “No matter if no one loves me, God loves me. So I’m here by God’s purpose, not by accident.” she realized. “That encouraged me and stayed in my heart. Yes, I was still facing a lot of challenges. But I had that reminder in my heart that God loves me.” As she pondered what God’s purpose might be in sparing her life, she gave God a promise. “If you’ll help me not to die soon, or disappear like other people say, I will help my fellow people with albinism, and also the families of people with albinism.” Released from the thought of bringing peace through her death, she committed to a mission of bringing peace through her life.
A Ministry Built On Love
Martha dedicated herself to following this God of love. She grew so much in her faith that she was soon sharing the good news of the gospel with others. She was embraced wholeheartedly by her church and trained as an evangelist. Her passion was two-fold: to share the hope she had found in Jesus, and to help change the culture in Tanzania so that people with albinism could live peacefully and free of fear within society.
In 1986, she began her ministry to people with albinism and their families humbly, informally, and relationally – by knocking on doors. She thought, “I will start with the families, because I’ve seen my mother – how she has suffered a lot because of me. They need encouragement so I have to encourage them.” She went door to door visiting families with words like, “Mom, take care of your child. I know that you are facing a lot of challenges, but you have a real human being here.” She wanted families to know their child with albinism was loved by God, and in need of specific types of care.
She formed a group for people with albinism to gather every three months to pray together and encourage one another. Her message was, “Don’t lose heart, God loves you.” “You are here by God’s purpose.” Sister Martha’s new and growing ministry to those with albinism was separate from her role within her church, and there was no funding available to formally start an NGO. This made the progress toward her hopeful vision very slow. Still, she traveled around the Arusha region educating people with the scientific and medical facts she had learned about albinism, beginning to unravel the harmful myths. People with albinism found support, acceptance, and hope they had never known was possible.
Sister Martha also experienced miraculous healing of relationships and made peace with people who had rejected or abused her, including her own father. She describes him as her “best friend” in the years leading up to his death in 1994. Before passing, he amended his will to ensure she inherited a piece of land. He believed that his daughter would need it, because she would be a “mother to many people” and would help everyone who came to her.
Her father’s words have proven true time and time again as Sister Martha’s name and ministry has gained recognition all throughout Tanzania. Happily married to her husband, Edmund, Sister Martha has no biological children but many children have come into her care. Some have loving families who are simply not able to keep them safe from harm by others. Some come from families that have emotionally rejected them and are relieved to be physically rid of them. No matter how dark the circumstances or how much trauma a child has endured, Sister Martha sees the potential for each child to know safety, love, acceptance, and peace. In her mind’s eye, the land her father set aside is the future site of a safe home for children with albinism – a “peace house” for those who need it most.
Hope For A New Generation
Sister Martha’s ministry, Albino Peacemakers, became an official Tanzanian NGO in 2015. She has a small staff, many advocates and volunteers, and an expansive vision for educating about albinism, supporting people of all ages with albinism, and ensuring that young children with albinism have the chance to be educated and cared for holistically in safe environments. For Lahash, partnering in ministry was a natural fit because the goals of Albino Peacemakers align so closely with the goals of the Child Sponsorship Program. The partnership became official in 2018, and Lahash is honored to help Sister Martha advocate and provide for these children and bring them in from the margins of Tanzanian society. Connecting the children with caring Lahash sponsors strengthens the safety net holding these kids, helping provide for their most critical needs.
In order to best ensure the children’s physical safety and give them an education tailored to their condition, Albino Peacemakers has worked hard to form solid connections with two schools in Tanzania that offer the option for students to live on campus. Most students in Tanzania walk to school, sometimes for several miles, but this is emotionally and physically unsafe for children with albinism. Living on campus with caring house parents provides security, and allows Sister Martha and her staff to interact with them frequently as a group to offer emotional, practical, and spiritual support.
The children’s school uniforms also look a bit different than what the non-albino students wear. Sun exposure causes painful skin lesions and even skin cancer in children, so kids with albinism require modified long uniforms and wide-brimmed sun hats. Both schools also make accommodations for the kids so that their poor eyesight is not an obstacle to learning.
Most of the students at both schools do not have albinism, but they are educated to understand the truth about the condition and have no fear of it. Seeing children with albinism being loved and accepted by their peer group gives Sister Martha hope for the future. Whenever these non-albino students encounter damaging lies about people with albinism, they will be able to say, “That’s not true, one of my best friends from school has albinism,” and help change society for the benefit of the needlessly marginalized.
“These Children Are Not A Burden”
Thinking back to when she first met each of the children, Sister Martha remembers malnourishment, unaddressed medical needs, and open sores on their bodies, heads, and mouths. Some came from families that rejected and abused them, like a little girl named Lucy who became very stressed about the plans for her and her brother to go home during a holiday break. “Sister Martha, no one is giving us food there at home. I have to go to other people. When they feel compassion they give me food. I better stay with you instead of going home.” All the kids had experienced various forms of trauma, discrimination, and neglect.
There were fragile hearts and many hurt feelings over common childhood interactions. Something simple like asking a child to exchange seats might trigger feelings of being unwanted. Most of them did not know how to share. They never had much to call their own, and were used to hearing that no one would touch anything they had touched. Even the children from loving families had internalized, much like Sister Martha, that their very presence brings hardship to their families. Sister Martha and her staff have heard many parents say things like, “I have a heavy burden, I have a child with albinism,” followed by a long description of all the difficulties.
It has taken patience, advocacy, and nurturing to bring about the transformation of these precious young lives. There is a long way to go, and Albino Peacemakers together with Lahash are committed to the entire journey. Sister Martha wants them to know their worth and recognize that their differences are not a reason for them to be targeted or shamed. Their differences are a reminder that they are uniquely created by a God who loves them exactly as they are. “We cannot say these children are a burden,” she says often and with deep conviction. “These children are not a burden. They are a grace.”
Some of the children have formed a choir, singing songs in both English and Swahili, and memorizing verses from the Bible. These children have lived in the shadows of society, associating direct attention from others with fear and abuse. Now the sense of triumph is tangible when they sing proudly in front of an audience with bright faces and joyful hearts. Seeing them safe, healthy, and happy is a positive turn in their story, yet far from the end.
Sister Martha celebrates their current progress as a hopeful glimpse of the future. Helping them to see themselves through God’s eyes is the key to them living with freedom and purpose. “I want these children to know God, to see the love of God, so that they can also share it to others,” Sister Martha says. “I see these children will become very important people. I tell them, ‘You are our bishops, you are our pastors, you are our president, you are our ministers, you are our teachers, you are our doctors.’ And that is who I really expect these children to be.”
To join Sister Martha in caring for these unique kids with unique needs, visit lahash.org/ap.