The plight of Tanzanian albinos on big screens By BILLIE ODIDI | Wednesday, March 20   2013 at  11:23

A scene from; In the shadow of the sun, a Tanzanian documentary film. PHOTO | HARRY FREELAND 

On the idyllic shores of Lake Victoria, three hours from Tanzania mainland, lies Ukerewe Island, home to a large community of people living with albinism, many of whom were abandoned on the island by their families as children.

Albinos in Tanzania live in fear of being killed and slaughtered for their body parts that are in demand in the belief that they bring wealth and good fortune.

A new documentary In the Shadow of the Sun presents an intimate portrait of two albinos as they attempt to follow their dreams in the face of prejudice and fear in Tanzania. The documentary was filmed over the last four years, before, during and after an outbreak of ritual killings of people with albinism that shocked the world.

“The murders were never my primary motive for making the film. I started shooting before the killings of albinos were first reported in 2006, so the film follows life before and during the escalation of the attacks,” says British writer-director-producer Harry Freeland.

The story revolves around attempts by two people with albinism to follow their dreams in the face of prejudice and fear in Tanzania. Freeland’s documentary, which originally run on British TV with the title Albino Witchcraft Murders, reveals deep-rooted superstition, suffering and incredible strength.

Josephat Torner is one of Tanzania’s most outspoken activists and has dedicated his life to campaigning against the discrimination of albinos like him who lack normal pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Despite facing great personal danger, he travels around Tanzania confronting both villagers who may be hiding the murderers and local witchdoctors.

“If society thinks of me as sub-human today, then I need a solution. How can I change society to view me as a blessing?” asks the 36-year-old from the northwestern Tanzanian region of Mwanza. Meanwhile, can he attain his dream of scaling the peak of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro?

The myths

It is through Torner that we meet Vedastus Zangole, a quiet, warm-hearted 15-year-old boy, who looks after his mother who is HIV positive while trying to gain acceptance in his community. He has been bullied out of a local school and efforts to gain admission at a secure school set up for children with albinism have failed.

The director spent a lot of time and effort researching in other parts of Africa in order to get the right subjects for the film. In Senegal, he found 20 people with albinism who had fled after being badly abused and stigmatized in their community. In parts of Zimbabwe, people believe that having sex with an albino cures HIV AIDS and many women with this condition have been raped as a result.

Freeland then traveled to Ukwere to document the island’s Albino Society as they carried out a survey to determine how many people were living with albinism on the island. It was here that he met Vedastus who spoke emotionally about his life; from the tightness of skin to the verbal and physical abuse he had to endure daily. “He had an inner strength, an underlying innocence and childlike openness. Each day he got up and went back to the same people that treat him so badly, hoping that tomorrow would be different.”

If they want to achieve their aims, Josephat and Vedastus must overcome not only other people’s prejudices, but also their own fears. “We can’t be refugees in our own country just because of our color,” says Torner.

Freeland first became aware of the plight of albinos in 2005 while in Senegal when a mother held out a child towards him and asked him to “take this child back to where it belongs.” The mother had been abandoned by her husband after the birth of their albino child and so she thought that because her child had white skin then it must belong to Freeland.

To complete the self-financed film, the director had to scrape through other jobs as a cameraman in other parts of Africa and would then return with funds to finish a portion of work. It also turned to be a long period of filming because as the murders of albinos began, it became imperative for the film to follow the story to its conclusion. “I wanted to give the protagonists time and space to tell their stories and to represent the same in a style that is empowering and positive.

In a country where albinism is treated as a curse, Torner considers himself lucky to have survived childhood. His mother had been advised by neighbors to poison him in order to cleanse the family and it has always been tough: “I grew up eating separately from everyone else as my plates and utensils were not to be used by others,” he says. “Albinism is considered a contamination and if my mother was not resolute then I would not have survived.”

The dangers

Playing such a major role in this film therefore was cathartic for him and it took a concerted effort to get him to reach beyond the façade of an activist and open up on camera about the stigma and discrimination that he has faced since childhood. He saw the film for the first time at the world premiere in Holland last year and watching 4 to 5 years of filming come down to 85 minutes helped him appreciate the battles he has faced to come thus far.

Torner says he has learnt to live his life without trusting anyone, not even relatives. “You are fighting an enemy you can’t see. Your enemy could be anyone and so you fight with everything you got.”

The dangers faced by albinos in Tanzania remain just as deadly today. In an extraordinary scene from the film, one girl named Kabula who is a pupil at the Buhangija school for children with albinism tells her friend how her arm was viciously chopped off: “ I think it was my father who sent the crowd to our house. They held my arm and cut it off,” she says. The director describes this moment as one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film.

In Tanzania, more than 60 albinos have been killed since 2007, sometimes right in front of their families, by gangs of men who hack off their legs, heads or genitals and run away with them. Albinos have also faced similar persecution throughout East and Central Africa.

There is a superstitious belief that potions made with albino blood, shoes made of albino skin, and parts of albino hair make people rich. In some parts of Tanzania, they are seen as waking bank notes and hence the nickname, “money.”

“Its just a few people who have been deceived to believe that there is wealth in my blood,” Torner tells a crowd in the film gathered in Bariadi village, Lake Zone, Tanzania. You are cheated to believe that if you chop off my fingers then you will wake up a wealthy man.”

Successful run

The plight of albinos in East Africa has been the subject of a film before Freeland’s current documentary. Kenyan film director Lupita Nyongo 2009 film In My Genes brought to the screen the story of eight people and their experiences of discrimination and prejudice due to albinism.

There are heartwarming moments too, like when Torner’s wife Sabella affirms her love for him:” I think he is handsome. I fell in love with the whole package,” she says. He in turn, credits her for being his pillar of strength, even as he embarks on a countrywide campaign that will force him to leave his family behind.

The film was completed in 2012 and is currently enjoying a successful run of some of the major film festivals in the world. It has been screened at the DocPoint Festival in Helsinki, Finland in January and at the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), the world’s largest documentary festival.

The London premiere has just taken place at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival where director Freeland and the story subject Torner talked with audiences about their experiences making the documentary. The two have also set up a charity called Standing Voice to translate awareness raised by the film about the lives of Tanzanians with albinism into empowering action.

Over the next one year, an outreach team led by Torner will travel to some of the most isolated and rural communities in East Africa where the filmmakers feel discrimination and misguided beliefs about albinism are prevalent. Torner’s words sum up the suffering and incredible strength of people with albinism: “One of the many things we have had to learn is to live in danger.”