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Tanzanian albinos seek government’s aid

KABANGA, Tanzania — As an infant in rural Tanzania, Angel Salvatory was unusual. Snow-white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes set her apart from others in her village. Those looks have also made her a target.

‘‘Her father thought she was a gift from God,’’ says Salvatory’s mother, Bestida Simon. ‘‘One that he could use to get riches.’’

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Since surviving an attack led by her father, Salvatory has spent the past four years living in the Kabanga Protectorate Center, a government safe house for people living with albinism.

‘‘Angel’s father led a group to attack her. He had wanted to attack her since she was 3 months old. He thought if they’d take Angel to a witch doctor as a sacrifice that they could get rich,’’ Simon said.

Burning in the daylight and hunted in the shadows, having albinism is often a death sentence in East Africa. In Tanzania, 1 out of every 1,400 people has albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a lack of pigment in the body. That compares to a global average of 1 in 20,000 people according to Under the Same Sun, a Canada-based albinism advocacy group.

The group says that more than 100 people with albinism have been physically attacked in Tanzania since 2006, including 71 who died. Albinos are widely seen as a source of magic in Tanzania’s traditional communities.

Long in danger and neglected in their own country, albinos in Tanzania now have a bit of hope for increased government assistance.

In April, members of Parliament heard emotional testimony that moved some to suggest making sunscreen tax free, and Parliament members voted to donate part of their salary to the cause.

Severin Edward, a program officer with the Tanzania Albino Society, noted that Parliament promised to set aside funds for the special needs of people with albinism, and that the country’s prime minister said the government has agreed to grant special priority to court cases involving albinos, to bring about justice faster.

‘‘This is the good point to start,’’ Edward said by e-mail last month.

A government census done in 2012 could reveal the exact numbers of albinos in Tanzania. The portion of the census regarding people with disabilities, including albinos, is expected to be released in 2014.

In Tanzania, albinos are often referred to as ghosts, or zero zero, which in Swahili signifies someone who is less than human. Legends here suggest that even when an albino is killed, he or she never really dies.

Brutal attacks against albinos are often led by witch doctors who use albino body parts in potions they claim bring riches. In response, the government began placing children and adults with albinism into safe houses. Although they may be physically protected in the centers, many there feel imprisoned.

In 2008 there was a rash of negative stories by Western journalists about the killings of albinos, said Peter Ash, founder of Under The Same Sun.

‘‘These centers came in response to the killings. It’s how the government has chosen to respond. The government has basically abandoned these kids,’’ he said. ‘‘There is no long-term plan.’’

Holding her 2-month-old baby, Jessica, on her back in a traditional kanga cloth, Helen Sekalima, 40, sorted dry beans. The dark-skinned mother came to live at the Kabanga Protectorate Center after her newborn infant was threatened.

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