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Langley man combats superstitions about albinism in Africa

People with pigment condition being blamed for COVID-19, he says

All kinds of crazy theories are floating around about the cause of COVID-19 and how it can spread.

A Langley man is working to dispel one of the more unusual myths – that the virus was caused by people with albinism, the genetic condition that leaves people with pale skin and no colour pigment in hair, eyelashes and eyebrows.

Peter Ash has albinism and since 2008 has been working to change perceptions in primarily Tanzania and the rest of Africa about the condition which in the past has been fatal for most.

People with albinism were often killed as being evil then their bodies cut up so the parts could be used in witchcraft to harness their ‘supernatural’ powers. Families usually abandoned children with albinism.

Now people with albinism are being blamed for COVID-19.

“There’s all this sort of superstition,” he explained. “They’re attaching that to COVID.”

He’s heard of people with albinism being called COVID-19 in public, as many in Africa believe everyone with the condition has the virus or are the way the virus is spread.

In the spring Ash was booked to go over to Tanzania, where his group Under the Same Sun, has worked to change public perception about albinism but had to cancel due to coronavirus.

Things are improving in Africa for people with the condition.

There are far fewer attacks since the group started, due to aggressive public education.

“We haven’t had a murder of a person with albinism in five years now [in Tanzania],” Ash noted.

But superstition in the time of COVID-19 has added to the group’s workload.

The virus hit Africa about a month after Canada which was taking precautions. Ash said such precautions were instituted for the staff and students in Africa which helped protect them even before the governments there announced lockdowns.

When schools were closed, Under the Same Sun had to scramble to find somewhere for about 50 of its students whose families had rejected them due to their albinism.

The group was able to rent a closed school and brought in its own staff. That’s an unexpected hit to the group’s budget.

About half of the staff at Under the Same Sun are people with albinism. While the condition makes people more vulnerable to skin cancer and affects their vision, there’s nothing wrong with their minds and many have gone onto post-secondary education.

“It used to be no one with albinism was educated which reinforced the negative perception,” he explained.

One young man who, after being educated through Under the Same Sun, returned to his village where the 20-year-old with albinism spoke to residents about the condition. They apologized for how they treated him 12 years earlier. As a small child, he was in the same room when someone broke into the family home to murder and dismember his sister because she had albinism.

Ash said that is the kind of psychological trauma people in Africa have faced if they have the condition. With the help of his group, there are now about 250 people in the education program offered by Under the Same Sun. The group uses 100 per cent of donations for its work in Tanzania, with administrative costs covered by a benefactor.

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Ash has travelled to Africa frequently and despite having albinism, doesn’t face the same threat from the citizens. His safety, protected by the use of private security guards, is under threat because of politics.

Ash has been vocal. He spoke to media around the globe and lobbied at the United Nations. One result of that effort was the International Albinism Awareness Day, declared for June 13 of each year.

He’s waiting to get back to Africa as soon as he can to help Under the Same Sun’s work to protect people with the condition from the superstitions now related to COVID-19.

Ash started out as a pastor in Manitoba before going into business with family members and moving to Langley about 17 years ago.

“Our businesses had been very successful,” he said.

But he was wanting a change. In 2008 he saw an article about the murder of people with albinism in Tanzania, which has the highest proportion of the condition in the world. Ash learned that the same superstitions existed elsewhere in Africa.

“I felt I could not just in my comfortable home in Langley,” he said. “In the truest sense of the word, I felt called.”

Peter Ash created Under the Same Sun to help people with albinism in Africa where they are persecuted. (Under the Same Sun photo)
Peter Ash created Under the Same Sun to help people with albinism in Africa where they are persecuted. (Under the Same Sun photo)

Heather Colpitts

About the Author: Heather Colpitts

Since starting in the news industry in 1992, my passion for sharing stories has taken me around Western Canada.
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