Peter Ash: Fighting for the rights of people with albinism

In large parts of Africa people with albinism live in constant fear of being killed or maimed. The continent lives under the deep-rooted superstition that their light-skinned body parts bring good luck. Canadian Peter Ash, himself a sufferer of albinism, founded an organization that offers these persecuted children protection.

Canadian Peter Ash noticed at an early age that he was different to other people. At school the other children meanly called him “Snowflake” or “Snow White”. They stared at him and teased him. Peter Ash was born with a genetic disorder that prevents his eyes, skin and hair from being able to produce pigment. His skin is very light and burns very quickly in the sun. His eyesight is so bad that he is almost blind. At school he couldn’t read what was written on the blackboard. In gym lessons he couldn’t catch the ball. The other children didn’t want him on their team. As Peter Ash says, “From the stares, smirks and comments it was clear to me that I stood out somehow.”

Twelve-year-old Mwigulu from Tanzania experienced the same thing from an early age. He too has albinism. The people in his village call him a “ghost”. He stands out more than anyone else among all the dark skinned children. And that’s dangerous for the boy. Because in Tanzania and other east African countries many people are very superstitious: they believe that the bodies of light-skinned Africans with albinism hold magical powers – that they bring good luck and prosperity. It’s a superstition with terrible consequences: in Tanzania alone in recent years, 76 people with albinism have been murdered so that magical potions and talismans can be made out of their bodies. Mwigulu is one boy who luckily escaped with his life: alone in the hills near his village one day, he was attacked by two strangers. They hacked off his left arm and left him there.

When Canadian Peter Ash heard in July 2008 what people like Mwigulu in Tanzania have to go through, he was shocked: “Sitting in my home in Vancouver, Canada, I recall thinking to myself: ‘If I lived as a person with albinism in Tanzania I would never feel safe at night as I fell asleep.’” He would be terrified of being attacked in the night, he thought. Ash, who is now a successful businessman working in finance and real estate, began to ask himself why he – a person with albinism – should be able to live a happy, sheltered life when Tanzanians with the same genetic defect cannot. Ash made a decision. He said to himself: “I can’t sit idly by here in Canada while my brothers and sisters are being butchered simply because they have the same genetic condition I do. I must see what I can do to help.” It was this thought that led to the foundation of Peter Ash’s aid organization, “Under the Same Sun”.

The organization protects children with albinism like Mwigulu: children who are at risk of being attacked because of their light skin. “Under the Same Sun” pays for them to attend private school where they get a lot of care and attention. They are guarded by security personnel. Most of the children come from very poor backgrounds – their parents are unable to afford the medical treatment that a person with albinism desperately needs. “Under the Same Sun” makes sure that the children receive regular health checks. This includes many visits to the optician because people with albinism are mostly visually impaired and need special glasses. The children’s sensitive skin is also constantly checked. Under Tanzania’s burning sun people with albinism are at extremely high risk of contracting skin cancer. Over 80 percent of Tanzanians with albinism die of the disease before they reach the age of 30.

But Peter Ash is not satisfied with just protecting selected children in private schools. In Tanzania alone, 17,000 people suffer from albinism. The genetic defect is much more prevalent in east African countries than it is in places like Europe: one in 3,000 children are born with albinism in East Africa, compared with only one in 20,000 children worldwide. That is part of the reason why the black market in their body parts thrives there. Witch doctors charge a lot of money for medical potions containing the blood of people with albinism, shoes made of their skin or fishing nets partly woven out of strands of their hair. The greater the demand for the gruesome talismans, which are sold as bringers of good luck and prosperity, the worse the hunt for people with albinism gets. Research conducted by “Under the Same Sun” found that the hand of a person with albinism fetches 3,000 dollars on the black market. All of the organs from his body can change hands for over 100,000 dollars.

Fighting the booming business in superstition is no easy task. Peter Ash does a lot of traveling, informing people and clearing up misconceptions. He has attended the United Nations several times, held speeches and called on the international community to take action against the discrimination of people with albinism in East Africa. He has spoken at many universities, had conversations with human rights organizations and given numerous interviews to the press. He has even spoken about his concern with Pope Francis. Peter Ash will leave no stone unturned in his quest to make people aware of the rights of those with albinism. “I have a dream that one day people with albinism will take their rightful place throughout every level of society”, he says, “and that the days of discrimination against persons with albinism will be a faint memory – everywhere.”

The young Tanzanian boy Mwigulu already seems to be on a good path. When his arm was cut off, he suffered anxiety attacks for a long time afterwards. He and his father then decided it would be best for him to go to a school sponsored by “Under the Same Sun”. What he found there was friendly teachers and children who sympathized with him. He started to feel better thanks to the medical care and optical aids he was given. His grades became so good that he was quickly top of the class. Mwigulu has flourished, say his school teachers: “He changed from a quiet, traumatized boy to a happy, outgoing child.” Being different to other people is something that Mwigulu can see as a strength today. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the twelve-year-old confidently answers, “President of Tanzania”.

Founder Peter Ash and albino children in Tanzania. Photo: “Under the Same Sun“

Header Photo: “Under the Same Sun”.

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