By: Charles Ngowi with Rebekah Wilesmith   |   Posted: September 14, 2017

Sponsorship boosts a Tanzanian boy’s confidence by allowing him to attend school and Compassion activities.

Teen with Albinism Faces Threats and Stigma

Sponsorship boosts a Tanzanian boy’s confidence by allowing him to attend school and Compassion activities.

Written by Charles Ngowi with Rebekah Wilesmith
Photography by Charles Ngowi
Yona carrying water

Yona’s chores include fetching water, which is often contaminated and must be boiled before it can be consumed. Waterborne illnesses and malaria are common threats to children in Yona’s region.

Yona hangs laundry to dry on a clothesline

Yona hangs laundry to dry on a clothesline outside his home in Tanzania. He purchased most of his clothes with birthday and Christmas money his sponsor sent him.

Yona was born in an impoverished city with a disease that makes his white skin stand out in stark contrast to his friends in Tanzania. It causes severe medical issues, but worst of all, it causes him to fear for his life.

In Tanzania, people with albinism live in terror of having their limbs hacked off by a witch doctor. Since 2000, a string of murders has left at least 72 Tanzanians with albinism dead and several others maimed. Authorities believe that a lucrative trade in albino body parts has driven the killings. People with albinism lack an enzyme necessary for producing melanin, so they have little pigment in their skin, hair and eyes. Some Africans believe these body parts possess magical powers to bring wealth and good luck. Potions made with the body parts can be sold for thousands of dollars on the black market. The Tanzanian government has taken action in the wake of the slaughters, opening shelters for children with the condition and commissioning a task force to investigate the killings.

Fearing for their son’s life increases stress for Yona’s already struggling parents. Yona’s father works as a small-business trader, selling plastics and nylon to earn a living. His mother is a peasant farmer who grows vegetables to sell. Their combined income of around $4.46 per day has never been enough to support their family of eight. They have five children of their own and took in their young niece.

In addition to their poverty-related stresses, Yona’s parents worry about his safety. Since he was born, the family has faced a social stigma attached to their son’s condition. People on the street whispered about him.

When Yona was 5, his life improved when he was registered into Compassion’s program. Being at the Compassion center provided an environment of love, care and protection that allowed this shy boy’s confidence and trust in people to grow.

“Before I joined Compassion I had not enrolled in any school. My parents could not afford to send all of us to school at the same time because of school fees,” Yona says.

“But after I was registered in the Compassion program, I started nursery school. Since then, I have been supported in many ways. I get school education supplies, such as textbooks, and I have been given an opportunity to study at a competent school. These could not have been possible without support I have received. Also, my parents have been working hard and improving our home environment, making it easier for me to learn.”

His Compassion tutors and church leaders have worked to educate the community about albinism. The Tanzanian government has also stepped up efforts to educate people about the condition. As a result, Compassion Tanzania leaders say, the stigma and threats against people with albinism have lessened.

While Yona’s life improved with the opportunity for an education, the medical issues associated with albinism made everyday tasks hard.

Yona has impaired vision, common for people with albinism. “Sometimes I walked to and from school when my parents were not able to afford transport fees for me. I faced sunburn because of my skin, especially during hot seasons, and my sight in the sun is much disturbed,” says Yona.

Because of medical costs related to albinism, Compassion’s Medical Fund has become a lifeline for his family. The fund helps sponsored children who need medical help beyond what sponsorship can cover. For Yona, the fund covers the cost of a special sunblock oil, sunglasses and hats.

With his health issues addressed, Yona is optimistic he can achieve his dream for the future.

“From the very beginning when I started secondary school education, I fell in love with science subjects. My plans are to go to university and become a chemical engineer,” he says.

Yona has always loved school, even though he faces jeering from classmates. “My fellow students and people nicknamed me ‘mzungu,’ meaning ‘white man.’ It was a bit hard for me to accept such comments or jokes, but now I am used to them, and their jokes are diminishing slowly as they see my determination and what I have been able to achieve,” Yona says.

Yona’s sponsor, whom he’s had since 2004, has been instrumental in getting him through the hard times. “My sponsor has stood by me from the beginning. He has been sending encouraging words about the future and about my dream.”

“In his letters he always lets me know that he’s praying for me. He also recognizes my birthdays and has been sending birthday gifts and bookmarks to me every year. His support to me is invaluable. It could be very difficult without his support. I still need his prayers and support to achieve my dream.”