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NAIROBI, Kenya — In Tanzania's predictable national election, one surprising thing happened: a 50-year-old father of three from a sleepy southern seaside town was elected to the country's parliament.
What made Salum Khalfani Bar’wani stand out is that he is an albino. Bar’wani has albinism, a genetic disorder affecting around one in 3,000 people in Tanzania that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. With their sunburned skin, yellowing hair and pale blue eyes, African albinos stand out from the crowd.
Simply being out in the equatorial sun is painful and can be deadly: Many albinos in Africa will die of skin cancer by their 30th birthday. But in Tanzania (and neighboring Burundi) they might be lucky to reach that age because of a gruesome trade in albino body parts that has emerged in recent years.
“There are things which people here believe,” Bar’wani told GlobalPost by phone from Lindi in southern Tanzania. “They believe that if you use the body parts of an albino you will become rich.”
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 "zeru," which means ghost.
As outrage over the killings and maiming of albinos grew, President Jakaya Kikwete appointed an albino woman, Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, to parliament in 2008. But Bar’wani is the first to be elected by a popular vote.
“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.”
Standing for the opposition Civic United Front party, Bar’wani defeated an incumbent lawmaker in Lindi winning his seat in the Oct. 31 nationwide election by a margin of more than 2,000 votes.
“I joined politics to represent people who have disabilities, as I have,” he said. “For us there is not any chance in education or jobs and in this country. Many people with albinism are killed but the government doesn’t say anything, they keep silent.”
Bar'wani said he hopes his victory will help change the situation.
“People with albinism aren’t considered fully human by their fellow Tanzanians,” said Susan DuBois, executive director of U.S.-based albino rights group Asante Mariamu, which supports Tanzania’s albinos with sunscreen, hats, financial help and education.
The organization is named after Mariamu Staford who was 26-years-old and pregnant when a gang of men broke into her house in rural Tanzania in 2008 and tried to hack off her arms. She survived but lost both ruined limbs and her unborn child.
“Bar’wani will be a highly visible example that people with albinism are completely normal, very competent and able to make serious contributions to society,” DuBois said.
During the campaign some of Bar’wani’s opponents claimed that as an albino he was mentally deficient or that the sunlight made him unable to think.
Activists hope that such myths will be dispelled by his election.
“Tanzanians are accepting people with albinism as ordinary people who have the right to be elected and take part in the decision-making process at the national level,” said Nemes Temba, an albino who is program officer at Under The Same Sun, an advocacy organization in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's commercial center.
“There was a time when we were considered as ghosts, that we did not die but would just vanish. These are myths that will now start to go away,” Temba said. “That means a lot.”
There have already been some high profile convictions of albino killers that have helped suppress the persecution and murders. At least seven people have been sentenced including four men who were given the death penalty for murdering a 50-year old man and chopping off his head and legs.
Temba said that the murders and attacks on albinos reached a peak in 2008 and have lessened since then. “I can’t say Bar’wani’s election will stop these attacks," he said, "but it will surely help reduce the extent of murders and atrocities against people with albinism.”