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Albinos Find Voice in Tanzania

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Albinos Find Voice in Tanzania

Albinos Find Voice in Tanzania

Albinos Find Voice in Tanzania

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Albinism in Tanzania has long been regarded as a curse. Albinos have been tortured and killed throughout the country and their body parts used in magic potions prepared by witch doctors. Now Tanzania's president Jakaya Kikwete has appointed the first Albino member of parliament in a nationwide effort to eliminate discrimination. Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer discusses her recent appointment and her struggle for justice.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

We continue with more news from abroad. Tanzania has long struggled with discrimination and violence against its Albino population. Albinos have a genetic condition that hampers normal skin pigmentation. As a result, they are extremely pale, with blond hair. In the past year, about 20 albinos, including children, have been killed and mutilated in Tanzania. There is a belief that Albinism is a curse and witch doctors throughout the country use Albino body parts in their magic potions. This threat to the Albino people is so severe that Tanzania's president, Jakaya Kikwete, made a major step toward protecting them. He recently appointed Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, the nation's first albino member of parliament. Ms. Kway-Geer is with us now from Tanzania. Welcome to the show and congratulations on your appointment.

Ms. AL-SHYMAA KWAY-GEER (First Albino Member of Parliament, Tanzania): Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.

CORLEY: You were appointed by the president in April. I was wondering how you've been received in Parliament.

Ms. KWAY-GEER: I received it very happily. I didn't expect it. But I was very happy because I am used to attend people, to serve people. That's my duty.

CORLEY: Have you been involved in politics in any way before?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Yes. In 2005 I was the candidate for assistant (unintelligible) for an MP, representing certain people.

CORLEY: Well, can you talk about...

Ms. KWAY-GEER: But unfortunately, I didn't get the post.

CORLEY: Well, and now you have a post.

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Now I have it, the President nominated.

CORLEY: Yes. Can you talk to us about your work during these past couple of month and tell us what has been particularly challenging for you?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: I was trying to have - to suggest to the government who will have a census of the albinos so that we know the number, the actual number. At the moment we don't know the number of albinos all over the country. About two years ago there were about 400, but there are more than that. I suggest to the government to have a census of all the albinos. We know the actual number so they can be helped with health, education and their safety, too.

CORLEY: What - do you have any sense of the numbers at all, how many people we're talking about?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: At the moment, about 4,000.

CORLEY: About 4,000 in the country.

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Yeah, albinos.

CORLEY: Can you tell us why albinos are being harassed in Tanzania?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: They have been harassed because of this witchcraft belief they kill their women. They believe that they are demons. Their body, their skin, hair, they will get their wealth through our bodies, every part of our bodies, the their wealth, for them.

CORLEY: It must be a very frightening situation for people. How long has this been going on?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: This started this year. Before, I didn't hear it. People were doing it quietly, people didn't know. But now, everybody knows that albinos are being killed, but they used to kill them before. People didn't know. At the moment, there is media all over. Everywhere, media. Things are coming out.

CORLEY: Yes. Yes. Can you tell us about the witch doctors themselves who use these body parts. Is there a large community of them?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: The witch doctors are in central province in (unintelligible) region, all those areas where there is minerals. The witchcraft doctors are there. They use the albinos' bodies for their minerals.

CORLEY: All right. So in isolated parts of the country.

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Yeah, isolated. Not all the parts.

CORLEY: And how are their beliefs being spread? How do they get people to buy into this idea that people's bodies should be used for these potions?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: You know, people are looking for money. They want to look for money, where to get the money quickly without working hard. So they go to the witch doctors, maybe they tell them what's their problem. So the witch doctor tells them, bring something. Bring the bones from albinos' body. Bring albinos' hair. So as a result, because they want the wealth, they give people money to kill albinos. They take legs and hands and hair and run away and leave the body there.

CORLEY: What are some of the measures that you're trying to implement in order to stop this from happening?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: In the parliament, at first to convince my co-MPs to try to give the people in other regions in Tanzania to get them to tell them that albinos are human beings. They need human rights like any other people. To educate people. That's what I'm trying to do and myself, I be going all over the country, each region, to go and tell people that.

In Dar Es Salaam I start to talk to TVs, through magazines I try to educate people, to try to tell them about albinos. To tell about albinism. What is albinism. We are human beings. We can do anything like any other people. Our skin doesn't need to be in the sun.

Therefore what I'm doing in the parliament is to tell other MPs to try and help me to educate people and maybe to make a law, something like that, but not yet, but that's what I'm trying to do. To do - to deal with witch doctors.

CORLEY: Absolutely.

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Yeah.

CORLEY: Absolutely. And we understand that albino children are being escorted to school. Do you know about this? What do you know about this?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Yeah, they are being escorted because they are afraid of that when they go to school, coming back - going, maybe the people will curse them and kill them because such things have already happened. So the parents are afraid at the moment.

CORLEY: Yes. Well you are an albino yourself. I was wondering how you were treated when you were growing up?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: I'm lucky enough my parents treated me very, very lovingly. They loved me so much, and I'm not alone. We are three in our family who are albinos.

CORLEY: Your appointment, and as you go around trying to educate people, what are you hoping the fact that you've been appointed to this board will do, and how were you hoping that that will change attitudes in the country?

Ms. KWAY-GEER: What I'm hoping that the attitude will change because it was happening every day, every day. These two things I haven't had a (unintelligible). Maybe people are trying to be afraid now. They know that the government is taking care that the witch doctors are going to be taken to jail. Therefore they are afraid. I think this will help.

CORLEY: Shymaa Kway-Geer is the first albino member of parliament in Tanzania. She joined us on the phone from Dar Es Salaam. Thank you so much.

Ms. KWAY-GEER: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: In a moment, rum makes a big come back.

Mr. SCOTT CLIME (Wine and Beverage Director, Saba Restaurant, Washington, D.C.): The resurgence came back with that of air conditioning because once air conditioning made its way to the island, it brought in tourists and people to visit the island and people with money that came down there. And then tried these different more exotic rums and you know, then brought a taste of it back.

CORLEY: That's in our Sipping Series when we continue with Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.

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