Any label that’s used to describe a person’s skin colour carries some connotation. It may point to discrimination, stereotyping and perceptions of beauty, even between those of the same race. This is especially true for people with albinism. Their skin colour leads to negative social constructions among Africans, including beliefs that they are evil cannibals or are cursed.
In Tanzania, witch doctors (waganga wa kienyeji) believe that people with albinism are immortal and that their genitals bring wealth. This drives people with albinism into hiding as they fear being murdered so their body parts can be used in rituals.
But Tanzanians with albinism don’t just face the threat of physical violence. They also suffer everyday discrimination. This begins, in many cases, at school. There is no hard data available about how many children with albinism are enrolled in the country’s schools. Overall, Tanzania has a very high rate of people living with the condition.
Early evidence from my ongoing study of the issue – building on my own previous research – suggests that such discrimination makes students with albinism particularly vulnerable to dropping out of school. This squares with what previous research into the problem has shown.
The law versus the reality
In theory, people with albinism are protected by Tanzania’s laws. The constitution’s equality clause stipulates that all human beings are born free and equal, and all are entitled to recognition and respect for their dignity.
So when they are unfairly discriminated against on the basis of their condition, people with albinism should be able to rely on the constitution. Sadly though, these paper rights don’t translate into daily life. Research by medical anthropologist Giorgio Brocco has shown that many Tanzanians simply don’t understand albinism. They know very little about what causes the condition and display their ignorance by mocking people with albinism.
This sort of mockery is sadly common in schools. Children with albinism are teased and physically bullied by classmates who don’t understand their condition.
Name-calling causes real damage
The presence of difference seems to give some children the “green light” to tease others. Fear, ignorance and a lack of education about albinism drive this teasing.
Name-calling may be interpreted as a means by which to oppress people with albinism. Certain words function to describe someone in a derogatory way, which in turn oppresses and hurts the individual in question.
It has also been argued that name-calling has the effect of excluding people. Students with albinism feel they can’t participate fully or confidently in class. When they ask questions or venture an opinion, they are called names such as “whitey”, “four eyes” (albinism is often associated with poor vision) and “mzungu” (“white person”) by fellow students, so they simply withdraw.
Research has shown that teachers and school managers in Tanzania don’t know much about the specific educational needs of children with albinism. The resulting lack of support and care, the evidence suggests, drives up rates of truancy among these children – and can even lead to them dropping out before they finish school.
All children – especially those with special learning needs – require support if they are to learn effectively and remain in school. For children with albinism this support must come from policymakers, teachers, their peers, parents and health specialists.
Schools need to take the lead to tackle bullying in the classroom. They are in the ideal position to teach children about the harm that’s done by discrimination. Lessons can also be arranged specifically to teach pupils about albinism – its causes, the myths that surround it and why these really are just myths. Children themselves could take part in these lessons by doing research or talking to their classmates who have albinism so they can begin to develop understanding and empathy.
Parents must also get involved. They can model behaviours for their children that teach them how to deal with negative comments. They can develop positive ways for their children to respond to teasing and name-calling in the future. They can also put pressure on schools to put in place proper anti-bullying policies.
Given that children with albinism are very vulnerable to dropping out of school early, such support is crucial. These children deserve an education as much as their peers. There should be no barriers to them achieving this.