Medical myths inspire fellowship and service

By Dr. John Philip, Past District Governor of District 1040 and Chairman of the International Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors

John (back row, middle) and wife Chris (back row, left) with a local family they have befriended in Ukerewe.
John (back row, middle) and wife Chris (back row, left) with a local family they have befriended in Ukerewe.

In 2009, I led a team of volunteers on a trip to the island of Ukerewe, Tanzania, where I met with the Chairman of the Ukerewe Albino Society. A slogan scribbled in black ink on the wall of his simple mud hut office caught my attention: We do not melt in the sun, we do not disappear, we live and die like normal people.

Since 2009, my wife Chris and I have visited Ukerewe, Africa’s largest island, ten times with volunteer groups to support the local community, including those with albinism. The Government of Tanzania had declared Ukerewe a safe haven for people with albinism and the island’s small albino community lives in relative safety.

Unfortunately, people with albinism living on mainland Tanzania, particularly in the Lake Victoria region, live under constant threat. Skin colour has always divided nations and communities. Recently, the absence of skin colour, an inherited condition called Albinism, has put a price tag on people’s lives and on their body parts in some regions of the globe. People with Albinism lack of melanin pigment in their skin and appear to have “white” skin, sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation and risk of developing skin cancer and significant sight problems.

While numbers vary, an estimated one in every 20,000 people has some form of albinism in North America and Europe.  In Tanzania, albinos represent one in every 1,429 births, more than in any other nation. According to Al-Shymaa Kway-Geer, an albino Member of Parliament, 6,977 documented and up to 17000 undocumented Persons with Albinism (PWA) live in Tanzania. [i]

In Tanzania, the albino community is stigmatised, exclude from education and employment, often physically assaulted and sometimes brutally murdered.  They live in fear because of widespread myths that their body parts have magical powers. It is becoming increasingly more common to seek out albino limbs; the body parts are believed to bring good luck – they can help win elections, make businesses successful and destroy enemies.

Alfred Kapole, Chairman of Ukerewe's Albino Society. Photo courtesy of John Philip
Alfred Kapole, Chairman of Ukerewe’s Albino Society. Photo courtesy of John Philip

We knew we couldn’t turn a blind eye to this terrible situation. After I presented the case for a Rotary project to the Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors, we circulated information about our plans to the wider Rotary network and received support from the USA, France, Portugal, Sweden, Geneva and India. Working with the Rotary Club of Moshi, Tanzania, as the local host club, and Mirfield Rotary Club in the UK as the international partner, we obtained a global grant to run a two year holistic project to help people with albinism in Tanzania.

The main aspects of the programme include:

Village education and peace building – Through a series of meetings at the heart of the community with high incidence of violence against PWAs, we will seek to change beliefs and myths about Albinism. Several meetings have already taken place in the Mara region and the communities’ response has exceeded all expectations. One village leader in Chitari said “We’ll not tolerate any attacks on the Albinos. They are our brothers and sisters.”

Improved Health care – We will work with local health providers to ensure PWAs have access to affordable skin cancer screenings and eye care.

Vocational training and microcredit loans– We will provide training opportunities to PWAs to improve their skills, acquire new skills, and improve their earning potential. The Musoma Rotary Club has launched a training programme and microcredit project to help PWAs. Seven groups have already been formed, each being a mixed group – albinos and nonalbinos. Our hope is that by working together, they will come to appreciate that beneath our varied external appearances we are all the same.

We strive to help a marginalized and discriminated community claim their rightful place in the society and live without fear or prejudice and ensure they ‘live and die like normal people’.

For more information about this project, contact PDG Dr. John Philip.

The International Fellowship of Rotarian Doctors consists of Rotary members, their spouses, and Rotaractors who are doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers. The group shares a vision for supporting and promoting global health improvements, an enthusiasm for making advancements through volunteerism, and a strong commitment to support local and international healthcare initiatives.


[i] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies



8 thoughts on “Medical myths inspire fellowship and service

  1. I am sadden that Albinos are treated in humanly, but elated with joy that Rotary is making the difference by providing support in various ways to live with dignity, including self sufficiency and self esteem. Well done Rotary and Rotarians.
    Mary Abraham, President Slough Rotary, UK

  2. It has been a pleasure to get involved with this project. It is not an exaggeration to say that it has changed my life. Please have a look at our website for more details

    Are there any medics in your club who may wish to join us?

  3. I became aware of the assault on the albinos also in 2009 in my first visit to Bukoba,,Tanzania up near the Uganda border,.also in 2009. I was taken to a school for the handicapped where about 25 albino children are being hidden from those who were killing albinos for their body parts. The number of children there has grown fro 25 t0 about 40. Some of the children were missing limbs from attacks. The Rotary club of Bukoba supplied the children with sun glasses and safari hats, but on subsequent visits the children are not well protected from the sun. They also need long clothing and sun block ointment, but the teachers do not have the time to see that the children are always protected from the sun. Efforts to have an order of Catholic sisters to attend these children are being pursued. On last count the number of albinos murdered for their body parts in Tanzania has grown to 78 and the killing goes on.

    1. Thank you for your comments. We are making efforts to work with all faith communities to tackle this horrendous situation. For the peace building and village education aspects, we work with the Mennonite Church community. Sister Martha, an Anglican Sister, is helping with vocational training and many other aspects. What is sad is that with classes of 100+ pupils, teachers find it difficult to offer any special attention to PWA pupils. Many of them are aware of the needs of these children but they are under pressure with large classes and very few books. PWA pupils need large print books and probably magnifying lenses and some personal tutoring. But who will provide these?

  4. I am proud with Dr John and his/her team mate who are working tirelessly to bridge the gap of people with albinism in Tanzania ,they are our brothers and sisters,they do not melt in the sun,they do not disappear,they live and die like normal people.
    Deograsias wegina ~ president
    rotary club of musoma

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