By Adam Bemma
ARUSHA, Tanzania – Meet Martha Mganga. She’s a 50-year-old Tanzanian woman with albinism.
She’s not afraid to use the term “albino” when referring to herself and others living with this condition. Albinism is defined as a rare, non-contagious, genetically-inherited condition occurring in both genders regardless of ethnicity, in all countries of the world.
As the first born out of three albino children (seven children in total, four being non-albino) Mganga’s father abused her psychologically. She recounts in vivid detail how residents in her village blamed her for everything that went wrong, from bad harvests to seasonal weather changes, believing she was a curse upon them.
This lead her to contemplate suicide, as Mganga couldn’t bear the mental anguish anymore.
“When I was a teenager I tried killing myself several times,” she said. “I threw myself into a river because I didn’t want to be a burden on my family. But God had another plan for me and I washed up on the shore, alive.”
For almost 30 years, Mganga has worked with albino children to educate and empower. She teaches these kids, and family members, about the harmful effects of the sun’s rays.
People with albinism lack pigmentation in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to sun exposure and bright light. Almost all albinos are visually impaired. They may also have a shortened life span due to lung disease or life-threatening skin cancers, states the UN.
Mganga, single-handedly, runs a non-profit organization called Albino Peacemakers. She works alongside established non-governmental organizations; Under the Same Sun and Tanzania Albino Society, to help provide sunscreen, sunglasses and hats to albinos across the country.
According to the UN, in Tanzania, and throughout East Africa, albinism is prevalent, with estimates of one in 2,000 people being affected by the condition.
So far this year, attacks against albinos have increased dramatically in Tanzania. In 2008, BBC Swahili bureau chief Vicky Ntetema exposed to the world how albinos were murdered and graves robbed for body parts, to be used for witchcraft purposes.
Ntetema’s investigative stories caused an international outcry, one which continues to this day.
Mganga says Ntetema’s journalism gave her reason to branch out and begin work as a peacemaker in regions of the country where albinos are seriously threatened, like the area around Tanzania’s second largest city: Mwanza.
“I often visit Mwanza and villages close to Lake Victoria to give talks to Tanzanians about how albinos are ordinary people just like you and me,” she said. “There’s still a stigma associated with being albino. One that leads ignorant and uneducated people to carry out horrendous acts.”
A recent upsurge in violence against albinos made the UN condemn the violence, with four attacks in a period of sixteen days, three of those being albino children. UN human rights chief Navi Pillay is urging the Tanzanian government to bring those responsible to justice.
“I strongly condemn these vicious killings and attacks which are committed in particularly horrifying circumstances which have involved dismembering people, including children while they are still alive,” Pillay said.
The UN human rights chief states that successful prosecutions are extremely rare in Tanzania. Out of the 72 murders of people with albinism documented since 2000, only five cases are reported to have resulted in successful prosecutions.
“Apart from physically protecting people with albinism, the government needs to take a much stronger and more pro-active approach to education and awareness-raising campaigns to combat the stigma attached to albinism,” Pillay said.
Mganga just returned to Arusha, her home since leaving the village she grew up in, after spending National Albinism Day in Tanzania raising awareness and trying to battle the discrimination faced by albinos in the country.
Close friends of Mganga refer to her candidly as “Sister Martha” and liken her work to that of Mother Teresa, due to her religious devotion and dedication to society’s less fortunate.