Tanzania’s albino lawmaker attracts world attention

Kizito Makoye (Dar es Salaam) –  Salum Khalfan Bar’wani- a 51-year-old family man from a remote township of Lindi; on the shores of Indian Ocean, southeast of Tanzania is probably rubbing hands with glee as an emerged world star following his astounding victory to Tanzania’s parliament.

Salum Khalfan Bar’wani and familyWhat made him a shining star is simply, he is an albino. Albinism is a genetic condition  that causes loss of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes, phenomenon mostly affecting people of African descent.

Bar’wani’s victory has come at the right time when Tanzania grapples to suppress the tide of vicious killings of innocent albinos; due to  a widespread belief that charms made from their body parts  bring good fortune.

There is one thing certain in life; we will all die,you will die and I will die, but the surging quest for gruesome albino body parts in Africa makes most of them particularly vulnerable because someone with a machete is hunting them.
As the country’s  first- ever- elected albino lawmaker Bar’wani is expressing  hope  that his being elected was a breakthrough   for all albinos in Tanzania and Africa at large.

Speaking on a telephone interview  from his Lindi constituency,  Bar’wani, who defeated an incumbent lawmaker  winning his parliamentary seat  by a margin of over 2000 votes, vowed  to work diligently  to defend fellow albinos.

People here say that albinos do not work, cannot do anything,” he said. “I tell them that albinos are people, there is no difference, we are the same and we can do anything that others can do.” He said.

“ I know very well the plight of albinos in this country , I promise to stand against  all sorts of prejudice toward albinos” Barwani said.

Mr. Bar’wani whose wife and children are not albinos said “the people have bestowed trust in me, it is therefore my duty to  bring development to my constituency.”

Speaking eloquently, without mincing words, Bar’wani expressed sorrow  on the wave of  albino killings. “I am deeply troubled by these despicable and barbaric acts, I will not rest until this evil goes away”

The lawmaker will certainly face daunting challenges in his desperate bid  to restore  the image  of Tanzania which has become notorious for ritual killings of albinos.

Scores of albinos have been murdered so that witchdoctors can use their skin and body parts to make potions they claim bring wealth and good fortune.

There is not even a word for albino in the local Kiswahili language, instead they are called “zeruzeru,” which means ghost.

“This is my opportunity to let voices of fellow albinos be heard” Bar’wani said adding that “I believe my victory symbolizes a change in attitude against people with disability.”

“There is no doubt I will  use my legislative power to defend  and fight for the rights and safety of people with albinism,” he said.

Bar’wani observed that as a lawmaker he would make sure that he   stands for policies and laws in favour of people with disability so that the government can address their problems.

Apart from the  less privileged, Barwani’s  major focus will be to serve the people of Lindi who trust his ability. “I will work with other leaders to tackle people’s problems   irrespective of their political affiliation,” said Mr. Bar’wani, who ventured into business soon after completing his secondary education in 1979.

From his humble beginnings he plunged himself into politics 18 years ago at the time when Tanzania adopted the –so-called  multi-party democracy.

“ The introduction of plural politics was like a stepping stone for me, because earlier on I could not stand on things I believe in  because  the ruling party operated like a club for dictators who did not care much for the disabled,” he asserted.

Despite all odds, considering his poor financial background, he managed to defect to a new political party NCCR- Mageuzi. He could hardly withstand  political turbulence whose tide made him pounce to TLP party and later he jumped to Civic United Front party. Leadership wrangles were the main reason for his subsequent defections.

Mr. Bar’wani said his dream  is to see Lindi town revert to its old glory. “Not long ago Lindi used to be known as Paris of Africa, it was supplying food  to many neighbouring regions ,but because of poor leadership the town is now grounded to almost a standstill. We will work together to claim back what we used to have through hardwork.”

Bar’wani’s political journey was not without hurdles; during the campaign some of  his opponents claimed that as an albino he was mentally deficient or that the sunlight made him unable to think.
“My opponents ridiculed me and residents here were infuriated by that. They claimed that albinos lack vitamin C and therefore cannot think properly. They told supporters not to choose an albino for this or that reason,” he recalled, adding that such insults had strengthened  his resolve to address problems facing albinos in the country.

In his counter verbal attack, Barwani simply said people harbouring such attitudes were no different from those who killed albinos for superstitious reasons.

People  suffering  from albinism are discriminated  against  and persecuted  in many African countries. In extreme cases , they are hunted , killed and dismembered  due to a wide spread superstitious belief that their body parts  can bring fortunes  and prosperity.

Mwanza city, in Northern part of the country has  been particularly  notorious  for albino killings  and once  the country’s prime minister  wept uncontrollably  while campaigning in the region against the brutality.  The government  has waged  a war against an underground syndicate of albino body parts dealers and captured several suspects, some of whom have been sentenced to death by courts after they were convicted  of taking part in albino murders.

In August this year a Kenyan was  sentenced to 17 years imprisonment for trying to sell for millions his albino friend to police detectives  in Mwanza who posed as rich clients for the obnoxious trade in human parts.

According to Albino Association of Tanzania  about 4000 albinos are officially  registered in the country  even though their  number is  believed to be a high as 173,000. Albinism affects one in 20,000 people in North America.

Kizito Makoye is a  seasoned journalist based in Dar es Salaam