National Geographic : 2017 Jun
82 national geographic • JUne 2017 Swahili: “We can’t just go into the lake without some kind of guidance or protection. Some of us believe in God, but the ones who believe in witch doctors get more than those who believe in God!” Everybody laughs and nods heartily. He con- tinues, “We get from witch doctors something wrapped in cloth or paper.” One man shows me with his fingers that it’s shaped like a cigar. It can cost as much as 100,000 Tanzanian shillings— about $45—and is embedded in the boat. I ask what’s in the packet. A tall, older man says sim- ply, “We dare not look.” I say, “I have heard that sometimes body parts of albino people are used for these charms,” and before my translator fin- ishes, all of them are frowning. One says, “Here nobody does that. They do it in the mines.” It’s unclear exactly how such body parts earned their mystique, but academics trace their use as commodities to the turn of this century, when subsistence farmers saw more opportunity but about 320 children to become professionals, seeking to change the stereotypes about—and the future for—people with albinism in sub- Saharan Africa, where for centuries they’ve been seen as curses and burdens: too poor-sighted to educate, too prone to sunburn while farming or fishing, and too strange to embrace. As we’re bumping over a road after meeting Emma, Ash tells me, “I view these kids as mis- siles, launched into society to blow up discrim- ination.” Later he settles on the ground in the shade at another school, with 40 albino students from toddlers to teenagers. Big, beefy, and self- assured, he cheers as they shout out their career dreams—“Lawyer!” “Nurse!” “President!”—then pronounces them “ambassadors for change.” Af- terward, they swarm him. He lifts the chins of the bashful ones and says, “You must look at me. If you don’t believe in yourself, the world will not believe in you.” UnDer the saMe sUn’s staff of 26 Tanza- nians, more than half with albinism, leads sem- inars on understanding albinism, usually in villages where people have been killed, attacked, or even kidnapped, never to be found. In those remote places, a variety of advisers, witch doc- tors, sorcerers, or diviners, called waganga in Swahili, are consulted for problems ranging from illness to a dry cow to an aloof wife. Prescriptions might include pulverized roots, herbal potions, or the blood of animals. People desperate for success—in work or politics—sometimes seek more potent solutions. Some waganga insist that the magic they need thrives in their chalk-skinned neighbors. Albino hair and bones, genitals and thumbs, are said to possess distinct powers. Dried, ground, and put into a package or scattered on the sea, bits of peo- ple born white on a dark-skinned continent are alleged to make a fishing net bulge, or reveal gold in a bed of rock, or help politicians win votes. On the stony southern shore of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, men and boys loiter in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops around their 40-foot, rough-hewn wooden sailboats. “ What do you do to improve your luck?” I ask, and one fisherman explains in Shamima Kassimu, eight, lives at the Kabanga center with three siblings who also have albinism. Some people with albinism, like Shamima, produce a little melanin. Exposure to the sun causes them to develop harmless dark blotches on their skin. The sun can also cause dangerous lesions that might turn into skin cancer if not treated early.