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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Peter Ash: A Beacon for Tanzanian albinos

Article courtesy of The Citizen newspaper (Tanzania)

The Canadian philanthropist has walked miles in the shoes of albinos, raising awareness about albinism and the unquestionable humanity of those who have it
If it were a movie or play, he would have been the typical empathetic hero, who traversed deserts to come to the rescue of his friends under siege. But Peter Ash is not a movie star, and his friends are not subjects in a Hollywood film.

Yet like the protagonist in a movie, the 45-year-old Canadian is the heroic man, who is admired and idealised by thousands of albinos in Tanzania for coming from a far-off country to their rescue.

Being an albino too, it is most likely that he understood too well the plight people with albinism could have been going through. In his childhood, he had had to contend with name-calling by his peers for being an albino. Yet when he thought he had heard the worst, he realised one day that elsewhere, the ordeal of being an albino was beyond anyone’s imagination.

“I first heard of albino killings in 2008 through a BBC English service report by Vicky Ntetema. Then I knew that my brothers and sisters were dying,” says Ash, the president and founder of ‘Under the Same Sun’, an organisation that assists albinos in Tanzania.

The organisation aims at protecting an estimated 170,000 albinos in the country, who live in constant fear of ‘machete’-brandishing murderers, baying for their arms and legs.

More than 50 albinos have been murdered in the country in the past year and half alone by superstitious fortune seekers, who believe that a concoction containing some albino body parts makes them rich and powerful. The Tanzania Albino Society says the total number of murdered albinos in the country is as high as 80.

The murderers are said to be selling an arm for up to $3,000 (Sh4.2 million) and limb for as much as $7,500 (Sh10.5 million). It was at the height of the killings, rampant in some parts of Burundi and Kenya too, that Ash decided to come and help in a different way.

Surprised“I was surprised by the large numbers of albinos in Tanzania and the rest of East Africa, it is quite different from Canada and the other parts of the world,” he says.

An established entrepreneur running a money-lending company, Ash was born in Canada in 1965. He grew up and studied in the North American country, where he obtained degrees in theology and psychology.

Man of the cloth

For 10 years, he worked as a man of the cloth with two churches before he began his money-lending business. Could it be his experience as a cleric that drove him into philanthropy? Maybe.

But the heavily built Canadian went through difficult times due to the unusual colour of his skin. “When I was young, my friends used to make fun of me, calling me names, especially because of my vision problem,” he recalls.

However, the name-calling, painful as it was for a young child, ended during childhood. He says he had no such experience again in school as an adult. He was, nevertheless, to feel it once more, and much worse, on learning that in some parts of Tanzania’s rural areas and East Africa, not only were albinos contending with discrimination, but also daily threats to their lives.

“No one ever killed albino babies in Canada based on the belief that they are a curse,” he says. He believes discrimination and poverty has reduced the life expectancy of albinos in Tanzania to 30 years. In Canada and other countries, people with albinism could live longer, despite the problem of skin cancer.

Ash decries the extent of discrimination against albinos in the country. Giving the example of Said Abdalla, an albino in Morogoro whose hand was chopped off last month, he says the prejudice against people with albinism is worse here than in any other part of the world that he has been to.

Ash paid Said a visit, only to discover that none of the victim’s relatives knew where he was living. “Even the brother (didn’t know where Said was living after the incident), but all of a sudden he was of interest to them because he was getting help from ‘Under the Same Sun’.

Through the organisation, the passionate Canadian philanthropist provides emotional and material support to thousands of albinos in the country. Among other things, the charity provides sunglasses used to avoid too much exposure to the sun.

He dismisses what he says is a widespread belief among local albinos that the problem of frequent reflex eye-blinking most of them have is stopped by exposing an albino child to the sun soon after birth. Ash explains that the problem can be stopped by simply putting on sunglasses.

‘Under the Same Sun’, which is located in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam, also helps albinos with tanning lotion and medical cover for some of the victims of the brutal attacks.

“They are exposed to too much sun, they can’t afford to buy tanning lotion, and they don’t have sunglasses, this is why they end up with skin cancer, which eventually leads to their death.”

In addition, the charity has a scholarship programme aimed at providing free education to albinos and improving their quality of life.

Vicky Ntetema, a former Tanzanian BBC correspondent and now executive director of media and international affairs with ‘Under the Same Sun’, describes Ash as someone who is “dedicating his energy and resources to help our brothers and sisters who are under siege”.

“He decided to call the charity ‘Under the Same Sun’ because all of us, regardless of our colour, black or white, albino or no albino, we all live under the same sun,” says Vicky, who won an award for her involvement in albinism advocacy.

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