John Makumbe, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe and president of the Zimbabwe Albino Association (Zimas) — a non-governmental organisation — faces discrimination every day of his life.
“When I walk into a dining hall or during tea break at workshops, I make sure that everybody takes their food and tea first and wait until everyone has taken their portion. There are people who will not share a teaspoon with me and I have learnt to live with that,” Makumbe said.
“I am also aware that not everybody accepts a handshake from me, so I wait for them to stretch their hands first. There are shops that will tell me openly not to touch anything. But if God made me this way, then it is not my problem.”
Albinism is an inherited genetic condition akin to sickle cell anemia that renders persons or animals unnaturally white in the skin and hair, with pink eyes, due to a quirky lack of natural colouring materials or pigments called melanin that give natural colour to normal species.
“It can attack one generation and skip another generation. But if our children grow up and marry albinos, chances of giving birth to albinos are great,” Makumbe said.
Makumbe was nearly killed at birth because the midwives suspected that his mother had had a sexual relationship with some white missionaries in Buhera District during the pre-colonial era.
Albinos are viewed by the wider society in much the same way twins and lepers were viewed in the past.
There are over 14 000 albinos in Zimbabwe, a figure based on the last census. Makumbe said he had since lobbied for a category that will include people living with albinism in the next census.
“At least 60-70 % of albinos are aged below 50. Very few reach 60 as they largely succumb to skin cancer, HIV and Aids,” Makumbe said.
Their skin cannot stand the ultraviolet rays of the sun that normal pigment tropical dwellers can withstand. Their skins break up and crack resulting in all sorts of skin infections that eventually lead to cancer.
“A lot of men and women have become victims of a falsehood which states that if you have sex with an albino, you will be healed from HIV infection that causes Aids. Our girls have been raped and this is a matter of great concern,” he said.
“Young men too have been sexually abused by women who also believe they can be healed from that affliction, but we all know that these are just myths.”
Makumbe says at least 60% of people living with albinism are located in rural areas where some are subjected to inhuman treatment.
Albinos have suffered very grievous discrimination and deprivations, even from the well-educated and progressive governments.
Because of their special genetic anomalies, albinos also suffer other unique afflictions. They have a hard time attracting marriage partners and those that eventually marry, face a lot of resistance from family members.
Albinos suffer from very poor eyesight but some teachers push them to the back of the classroom which makes it difficult for them to see what is on the chalkboard.
“These children walk up and down to the chalkboard because their teachers do not want them near their desks at the front. That is also what happened to me when I was a child. But the Ministry of Education is so far the only government organ that has employed albinos as teachers. Other employers are reluctant to engage albinos in their workforce.”
The police have also conscripted some albinos, but the numbers are very low. Makumbe argues that Zimas should be recognised as a human rights organisation and not a social welfare body.
“The government thinks Zimas is doing social welfare (work) and yet we are dealing with a disability which unfortunately is being ignored.”
He says the Disability Board resolved that the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority exempts import duty on cars bought by albinos but this has been overlooked.
“I bought a car recently and when I queried about the directive on duty I was told that exemption was for people with permanent disabilities, but as you can see I am a permanently-disabled person.”
Although the government initially gave Zimas funds, private donors like the Christian Community Participation Trust (CCPT) and the Spanish Embassy have also made substantial donations to the organisation. Sanders Opticians is yet another company that dispenses at least six pairs of spectacles to Zimas every month.
“I am so grateful to Strive Masiyiwa’s CCPT, the embassy and Sanders Opticians. They have eased the suffering of many of our members,” Makumbe says.
Recently, Square Deal, a distributor for the LeSol range of sunscreen products that give protection against sunburn, donated 48 boxes with 12 bottles each of the lotion. Last year, the company donated 100 boxes to Zimas which were distributed to albinos around the country.
“We hope to make it a regular affair. Sadly, so many of those who need sun care protection products simply cannot afford them,” said Square Deal official Shearol Langeveldt at the presentation ceremony at Zimas offices.
“The albino community is especially vulnerable to skin damage due to sunburn on unprotected skin. This leads to great discomfort, sores and infection often leading to cancer. And unfortunately someone with an unhealthy skin is often prejudiced both at home and work,” Langeveldt added.