This past week we were invited as a family to participate in Mennonite Central Committee’s camp for Tanzanian children with albinism. These kids were invited by all over the region to come meet at a primary school in Musoma. In order to have camp at that location, which is host to about 40 children with visual impairments. So there were about 90 children with either albinism or visual difficulties, plus Innocent. The theme of the camp was “I am Valuable” and the kids took classes on Character Building and Health and played games and did crafts. Fred was helping to teach a class on Peace Making (he took the photo below of Inno with a couple of his group members), in which the kids learned about the differences between “green communities” where peace and justice are present and “red communities” where chaos prevails, among many other things.
Children with albinism face many obstacles in Africa, particularly in Tanzania. They are hugely misunderstood, especially when born in remote villages, where people call them derogatory names and sometimes believe that they are not really human. People with albinism are sometimes hunted and killed or maimed; their body parts are used by witch doctors in charms which are said to offer business or political success. An albino’s body can sell for hundred’s of thousands of US dollars, an enormous fortune in the developing world. In Tanzania it is more likely for a child to have an arm cut off, sometimes by a neighbor or a relative. These kids live under nearly constant threat, so the Peace Making and Character Building classes’ lessons on forgiveness carry a heavy weight for them.
Additionally, the unique health concerns of albinos are not well known by their caregivers, so they suffer very painful sunburns and lip blisters from sun exposure. Their eyes are weak, so many people develop partial or total blindness. These health concerns are not usually accommodated by primary school teachers, who may require the students to wear short sleeved shirts and shorts without a hat for school uniform. Some teachers require the albino students to sit in the back of the classroom where they cannot see the board, or in a window or doorway where they are exposed to sun throughout the day. Many African albinos don’t live beyond age 30 because they develop skin cancer from sun exposure and die extremely painful deaths.
Like all African kids, the albino kids were very interested in Wesley and Gretchen. It took the better part of the week for Wesley and Gretchen to get used to all the new kids, but by the last day they were playing with the kids and having a great time. Innocent did such a great job of playing with all kids, regardless of their skin color or disability. His best friend at the camp, Iddi (at Inno’s left in the photo at left), has pretty bad chapped lips, such that his mouth is often bloody. It looks a little gruesome, but I loved that Inno didn’t judge his friend. During the last night talent show, Iddi and Inno did acrobatic flips together. Their other friend, Chacha (in the yellow camp shirt), volunteered to be the first kid to show a talent, and he sang a kind of hip hop beat song. Wesley, who loved Chacha, stood next to him watching intently through the whole song. It was pretty adorable. Their friend Gilbert, at the far right, did a hilarious range of crazy laughter…probably the favorite talent of the whole show.
One day of the camp they took the kids on safari into the nearby Serengeti Park, so Wesley, Gretchen and I went to the beach to play. A couple of the American volunteers who didn’t need to go on safari went with us, including a new friend, Wendy, who is a teacher living in Tanzania almost as long as I have been. It was really great to talk with her about our common experiences. We were really glad we decided not to go on safari, since they got stuck in the mud several times and didn’t arrive back until 1:30am! The photos we saw in the camp’s closing ceremony showed albino kids helping blind kids jump across muddy ruts in the road, and we heard stories of trying to find non-snake-infested shade for the 50-some albino children to share while the buses were pried loose from the mud.
As our family contemplates getting involved with the MCC village level program to do education and peacemaking regarding albinism, it was really a privilege to spend time with the kids this week. It took the issue of albinism out of a purely social justice realm for me and into a much more personal issue. Just like Fred was teaching them in class, a sense of compassion should lead into kind acts, which reflect personal integrity and responsibility. Now when stories about violence against albinos appear in the news, Gilbert and Iddi and 89 other children’s faces will come to my mind, and I hope to yours as well.