The following is a speech from 2011, being reprinted with permission. Sadly, the issues mentioned in this article are still of great concern today. Children are being forced to live in “orphanage-type prisons.” Josephat did in fact complete his journey, and his fight to educate the people of his country on the facts about albinism continues to this day.
My name is Josephat Torner. I am a Tanzanian man who was born in Mwanza some 34 years ago. For all of those 34 years I have faced many, many problems due to the colour of my skin. I am a person born with albinism. Albinism is caused by the meeting of two recessive genes leading to an absence of the enzyme, necessary to produce dark pigment in the skin. My skin is therefore left without colour and appearing white. Without the protective pigment melanin, ultraviolet light penetrates my skin. My skin is therefore vulnerable to damage – a problem particularly severe under our hot African sun. 1 in 4000 people have some form of albinism in Tanzania. As a man with albinism I burn and blister very, very easily and I will probably die of skin cancer before I reach the age of 40. My albinism is also responsible for problems with my eyesight.
However, my struggle is not with my own albinism. No. I am not here today to talk to you about my eyesight or my skin – I am here today to make a stand against the backward mindset amongst many Tanzanians and many Africans across this great continent who believe that a person with albinism is a less able person. It is this dangerous ideology that has been responsible for the stigmatization, isolation, suffering and the murder of people with albinism for too many years now.
On Saturday 30th July, 2011 I shall begin to climb the tallest mountain in all of Africa – Mt. Kilimanjaro. My aim is to get to the top and prove to all of Tanzania, all of Africa, and indeed the entire world that a person with albinism is a person that is capable of anything and everything.
My aim is to take the rights of ‘people with albinism’ to the top of Africa and shout as loud as I can:
A person with albinism is not someone to be feared.
A person with albinism is not someone to be persecuted.
A person with albinism is not someone to be hunted like a wild animal, chopped up and sold for the highest price.
A person with albinism is a human being.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is nearly 6000 meters high and it will take me 8 days of walking and climbing to reach it’s summit. I will encounter altitude sickness, extreme remoteness, sub zero temperatures and of course my biggest natural enemy, the sun. The sun will be at its most powerful throughout this climb. I am not a professional climber or an athlete; I’m just an ordinary Tanzanian man with an important message to deliver. My hope and my faith is that I will reach the mountaintop and fulfill a dream I have had for many years and become the first Tanzanian man with albinism to reach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It will be hard, but I am not afraid.
In recent times the situation for people with albinism has become desperate. Since 2007, people with albinism have been brutally murdered because of ignorant and ridiculous claims that albino body parts will bring you great wealth. It is this false, superstitious belief that has created a market for albino body parts and has led to the persecution, killing and hunting of more than 60 people with albinism in Tanzania. As I sit before you here today, I know that there will be some people looking at me and thinking that I am ‘a deal’…worth a lot of money perhaps; that my arms alone could fetch a small fortune. Are we really so desperate, that we must kill, murder each other for money…?
I would like to tell you a story about a 13-year-old girl called Kabula Nkalango. I met her in a school that has been created specifically to protect children with albinism from being attacked and killed. The fact that a school like this is necessary could surely only be described as a shame on our nation – but 13=year-old Kabula was there, on her own continuing to survive. Kabula only has the use of her left arm because the right arm was hacked off in the middle of the night by men in search of albino body parts. They beat her, held her down, put a piece of wood behind her limb and sawed it off with a blunt machete. After the arm was removed the men fetched kerosene and sealed her hemorrhaging wound with fire. They left a blood soaked, scared, unconscious Kabula on the floor. They had got what they came for.
There are 118 children with albinism herded into this ‘special’ school that is surrounded by a high wall and guarded by police officers at night. It feels more like an orphanage-type prison for children who have done nothing wrong other than to look a little different from others. Abandoned and dumped for their safety they are growing up confused and segregated from the wider community, with their condition becoming further mystified and alienated from society. They cannot play in the fields or go to the market because no one can leave this place of protection. This school is just one amongst many that are cropping up all over Tanzania. I know this because I have visited them.
When I begin my climb, I climb for Kabula and all children with albinism who have been forced to leave their homes and their parents.
Over the last 4 years, as the attacks and killings have escalated in our country I have journeyed across Tanzania to speak with the nation about the human rights of albinos and to confront the communities where the killings have taken place. Recently I spoke to a community on the Burundi / Tanzania border who told me that they had taken action against the killings and decided to send all people with albinism and mothers who have children with albinism to a special camp. When I visited this camp, I was deeply shocked at what I saw. This was, in my humble opinion, a refugee camp for albinos. A refugee camp of colour. This place is the first of its kind and a dangerous precedent for our country to be setting. Refugees in our own country and for what reason I ask?
Women and children were living inside a 15 foot brick wall barrier protecting them from the outside world. I met Mumma felicity, a non-albino lady who’d had one of her albino children – 4yr old Neema snatched in the night only to be found dead the next morning in a nearby forest with her legs missing. Mumma felicity fled to this camp only to protect her second child. Another women, Bibi Anna, a 63-year-old lady just said to me that she ‘missed her home, her farm, her family and was desperate to leave’. She was fed up with standing in a line and waiting for food like a child. Rachia said this place had stolen her dignity as a woman and that she was worried about the children she’d left behind at home; it was 2 years since she’d last seen them – her community had told her she had to come here for her own safety.
All of the women here asked me when they would be able to leave and return home. I had no answer for them because I did not know.
When I begin my climb, I climb for the women of Kabanga so that one day they can leave that place and return home safely to where they belong.
The last story I would like to tell you is about a 16-year-old boy called Vedastus Zangule. Vedastus lives on a remote Island on Lake Victoria. He has not been to school for nearly 4 years because of his albinism. When children in his village go fishing they ask Vedastus to come with them, to keep them safe and prevent them from drowning. In Veda’s village it is believed that “albinos float on water”. All that Vedastus wants is to complete his education, make friends and lead a good, simple life; but society and the ignorance of those around him will not let this happen. Like so many people with albinism, Vedastus has been left alone in the dark.
In Vedastus, I see my own struggle as a young boy, lonely, isolated and scared.
When I begin my climb, I climb for Vedastus and for any person with albinism who has been left alone to wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you: hide in the shadow of the sun no more.
But most of all,
I climb for Tanzanians, every single one of us – the best of us and the worst us. For, although I shall walk alone up the mountain, I cannot walk alone in this struggle. Special schools are not the answer, refugee camps are not the answer. The answer is education, leading to understanding, leading to compassion, leading to community action. It will take every one of us to be victorious in this struggle, but it is my continual hope that we can do it together. And it is this hope that I will take with me to the mountain top.
Perhaps the greatest problem we have is that sitting before you today, you do not see a man, you see an albino man…