Doctors’ Fellowship aims to empower albino community in Tanzania

By Dr. John Philip, Past District Governor and Chair of the International Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors

Albino FamilyThree years ago I was on the island of Ukerewe in Tanzania leading a Rotary project when I heard a child had been abducted and murdered. The child was an albino and was targeted by traditional healers. I was in utter disbelief when I discovered traditional healers, sometimes called witch doctors, target albinos to use their body parts in ritual practices, which they claim bring wealth and good luck. The Tanzanian government banned witch doctors in January 2015. Since then more than 200 witch doctors and traditional healers have been arrested, but many people with albinism still live under the threat of death.

People with albinism lack melanin pigment in their skin and appear to have “white” skin. They have sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation and are at risk of developing skin cancer and significant sight problems. The Rotarian Doctors’ Fellowship is supporting a campaign in Tanzania to help this marginalized and discriminated community claim their rightful place in the society and live without fear. Our project addresses many interconnected challenges – reducing stigma through village seminars, vocational training and improving eye care.

ROTARIAN WITH AN ALBINOAs a cancer specialist, my initial interest was to help this high risk group receive better treatment for skin cancer. Skin cancer is not a lethal disease and is easily preventable. I soon realized that improving skin cancer care was important, but will have little effect until other complex social issues are addressed. Through village education and peace building efforts, we sought to help persuade communities with high incidences of violence against people with albinism to abandon old beliefs and myths.

This year, I went back to evaluate the campaign and our efforts. Our local partner, the Mennonite Central Committee of Tanzania (MCC), had conducted more than 40 village education meetings engaging 2,000 villagers.  At the review meeting, I met with 16 village leaders and heard their plans of action. There had been a dramatic change in their perception about albinism and a sense of determination that they did not want the good names of their villages to be tarnished by attacks on people with albinism.

Then I witnessed something that had never happened before. I heard a joint presentation by a traditional healer and person with albinism. As a result of the year-long peace building efforts, traditional healers and people with albinism had formed an alliance called CHATAS to openly fight against albinism myths.

They called for action to bring to justice those who propagated abhorrent views. The leader of CHATAS, a traditional healer himself said, “We – the traditional healers – condemn and disown those who bring disgrace to our profession. We hope they would be debarred from practicing healing. Albinos are people just like us.”

This type of collaboration was unimaginable a year ago. The village education meetings and peace building program were funded by Rotary and implemented by our partners – MCC and Albino Peace Makers. Rotary helped make this miracle happen.

Through the Fellowship’s network of contacts, I have been able to share my experience with colleagues all around the world and thus highlight the plight of people with albinism.  The project has attracted support from seven Rotary districts and a number of organizations. I was even invited to share my experience with delegates at the Rotary International Presidential Conference on Disease Prevention and Treatment in Cannes.

PEOPLE LIKE US1Helping people with albinism is one of many projects supported by the Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors. The Fellowship offers for Rotarians, their family members, and program participants and alumni a unique opportunity to bring their vocation into service, change lives and make friends. The group shares a vision for supporting and promoting global health improvements, an enthusiasm for making advancements through volunteering, and a strong commitment to support local and international healthcare initiatives. For more information, contact me.

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Related:

Medical myths inspire fellowship and service

By Dr. John Philip, Past District Governor of District 1040 and Chairman of the International Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors

John (back row, middle) and wife Chris (back row, left) with a local family they have befriended in Ukerewe.
John (back row, middle) and wife Chris (back row, left) with a local family they have befriended in Ukerewe.

In 2009, I led a team of volunteers on a trip to the island of Ukerewe, Tanzania, where I met with the Chairman of the Ukerewe Albino Society. A slogan scribbled in black ink on the wall of his simple mud hut office caught my attention: We do not melt in the sun, we do not disappear, we live and die like normal people.

Since 2009, my wife Chris and I have visited Ukerewe, Africa’s largest island, ten times with volunteer groups to support the local community, including those with albinism. The Government of Tanzania had declared Ukerewe a safe haven for people with albinism and the island’s small albino community lives in relative safety.

Unfortunately, people with albinism living on mainland Tanzania, particularly in the Lake Victoria region, live under constant threat. Skin colour has always divided nations and communities. Recently, the absence of skin colour, an inherited condition called Albinism, has put a price tag on people’s lives and on their body parts in some regions of the globe. People with Albinism lack of melanin pigment in their skin and appear to have “white” skin, sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation and risk of developing skin cancer and significant sight problems.

While numbers vary, an estimated one in every 20,000 people has some form of albinism in North America and Europe.  In Tanzania, albinos represent one in every 1,429 births, more than in any other nation. According to Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, an albino Member of Parliament, 6,977 documented and up to 17000 undocumented Persons with Albinism (PWA) live in Tanzania. [i]

In Tanzania, the albino community is stigmatised, exclude from education and employment, often physically assaulted and sometimes brutally murdered.  They live in fear because of widespread myths that their body parts have magical powers. It is becoming increasingly more common to seek out albino limbs; the body parts are believed to bring good luck – they can help win elections, make businesses successful and destroy enemies.

Alfred Kapole, Chairman of Ukerewe's Albino Society. Photo courtesy of John Philip
Alfred Kapole, Chairman of Ukerewe’s Albino Society. Photo courtesy of John Philip

We knew we couldn’t turn a blind eye to this terrible situation. After I presented the case for a Rotary project to the Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors, we circulated information about our plans to the wider Rotary network and received support from the USA, France, Portugal, Sweden, Geneva and India. Working with the Rotary Club of Moshi, Tanzania, as the local host club, and Mirfield Rotary Club in the UK as the international partner, we obtained a global grant to run a two year holistic project to help people with albinism in Tanzania.

The main aspects of the programme include:

Village education and peace building – Through a series of meetings at the heart of the community with high incidence of violence against PWAs, we will seek to change beliefs and myths about Albinism. Several meetings have already taken place in the Mara region and the communities’ response has exceeded all expectations. One village leader in Chitari said “We’ll not tolerate any attacks on the Albinos. They are our brothers and sisters.”

Improved Health care – We will work with local health providers to ensure PWAs have access to affordable skin cancer screenings and eye care.

Vocational training and microcredit loans– We will provide training opportunities to PWAs to improve their skills, acquire new skills, and improve their earning potential. The Musoma Rotary Club has launched a training programme and microcredit project to help PWAs. Seven groups have already been formed, each being a mixed group – albinos and nonalbinos. Our hope is that by working together, they will come to appreciate that beneath our varied external appearances we are all the same.

We strive to help a marginalized and discriminated community claim their rightful place in the society and live without fear or prejudice and ensure they ‘live and die like normal people’.

For more information about this project, contact PDG Dr. John Philip.

The International Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors consists of Rotary members, their spouses, and Rotaractors who are doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers. The group shares a vision for supporting and promoting global health improvements, an enthusiasm for making advancements through volunteerism, and a strong commitment to support local and international healthcare initiatives.

Related:

[i] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies