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'Education can eradicate stigma against albinos'

Interview: Jane Ayeko-KümmethJune 13, 2016

What does International Albinism Awareness Day mean for people living with the skin condition? DW spoke to Abdallah Saleh Possi, a Tanzanian deputy state minister, who is an albino.

Tansania Albino United football Club (c) Getty Images/AFP/Y. Chiba
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Chiba

How much do you know about albinism? That's a question the United Nations hoped many would answer when it dedicated June 13 to International Albinism Awareness Day.

Albinism is a genetic condition, where people are born without the usual pigment in their bodies. People living with the condition cannot make a normal amount of melanin, the chemical responsible for colors in the eye, skin, and hair.

However, many people in the African continent know very little about the condition and often maltreat people living with it. In Cameroon, for instance, some ethnic groups have even advocated for the killing of people with albinism.

But Tanzania, which has one of the highest number of people living with albinism and where albinos live in fear of being targeted for ritual killings, made history after an albino became a government minister.

First a lawyer and then a university professor. Dr. Abdallah Saleh Possi was appointed as Tanzania's deputy state minister in the prime minister’s office responsible for among other things employment and people with physical disabilities.On International Albinism Awareness Day, he has been speaking to Deutsche Welle about the plights of albinos in Tanzania.

Tansania Albinismus Abdallah Possi
Dr. Abdallah Saleh Possi is a lawyer, a university lecturer and an advocate for people living with albinism in TanzaniaImage: privat

DW: What does the International Albinism Awareness Day mean to you personally?

Dr. Abdallah Saleh Possi: To me this is an awareness day and days like these can be used by governments to come up with programs or new approaches in order to ensure persons with albinism are getting their voices heard louder.

You are the first minister with this condition in your country. Have conditions for albinos gotten better or worse in the months you have been in office?

I would say better if I compare it with what had happened in the past; about the killings and attacks. Although, I know that we still need to work as hard as far as stigma is concerned because stigma is not something you can erase in one or two years.

Take as an example to issues related to race and gender. People who had believed that some races and genders are inferior still exist, despite a lot of international approaches to end such kinds of thinking.

Is tougher legislation needed to protect people with albinism?

Well as a lawyer I would ask which kind of tougher legislation? We already have the death penalty in our criminal statute and it would be funny to say if you murder a person with albinism, you suffer the death penalty while we already know that if you murder any person you will suffer death.

As far the law is concerned, much remains with implementation and awareness. We already have people on death row because the highest court of the land, the court of appeal, refused to review their convictions. So, the law is fine. But if you do not educate the people today, others will come up tomorrow with the same belief. The more sustainable thing is to erase this belief.

In your opinion, do the media help break prejudices or does it help reinforce it?

Well, I have a mixed view of the media. I know that the media can be a very powerful tool in eradicating prejudices but sometimes I have a problem with the media. For instance, I remember an incident where persons with albinism fought and on the media we read on the newspapers that albinos fight in front of the state house.

And I remember to have answered this like if brown or tall people fight, will you just write tall people fight? So, there is still a problem in the media. It could be a personal problem or it could be maybe because of lack of understanding, there is still that approach that persons with albinism are very different; they are not normal.

So, the question of whether the media has or has not been very helpful is pretty tricky and I don't want to be academic in that. But I still believe that the media can help in erasing stigma, especially if it portrays the condition of albinism as a person who should benefit from equal rights.

Dr. Abdallah Saleh Possi is a lawyer, a university lecturer and an advocate for people living with albinism in Tanzania.

Interview: Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth