By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Sept. 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Six African women with albinism who have overcome stigma, abuse, rape, and machete attacks are set to scale the continent's highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, to dispel the negative perceptions surrounding people with the rare skin condition.
The novice climbers — aged between 26 to 35 years old and from Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Senegal — said their seven-day trek up the 5,895-metre (19,340-foot) summit in Tanzania was to celebrate people with albinism.
"We are tired of being told we are incapable, cursed and cannot be part of society," said Jane Waithera, Kenyan activist and co-founder of the "Climb for Albinism" expedition, which begins on Oct. 1.
"So here we are, six African women with albinism who have succeeded in their lives despite the odds, who are climbing the continent's biggest mountain to amplify the voices of people with albinism — and hopefully be an inspiration to others."
Joining Waithera are Senegalese bass player Maah Koudia Keita, Nigerian optometrist Onyinye Edi, South African actress and singer Regina Mary Ndlovu, Tanzanian entrepreneur Mariamu Staford and Zimbabwean educator Nodumo Ncomanzi.
People with albinism — a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes - are frequently shunned and attacked in Africa due to a lack of awareness about the rare genetic condition.
In some countries, they are targeted for their body parts, which are prized in witchcraft for use as lucky charms or in magic potions. Women risk rape due to myths suggesting sex with a woman with albinism can cure AIDS.
Rising reports of ritual and witchcraft-related killings for body parts in countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, and Burundi in recent years has prompted the United Nations to appoint a special expert to protect people with albinism.
ARMS HACKED OFF
The six women on the expedition have faced their own struggles growing up with albinism — some more horrific than others — and are now fighting the stigma and raising awareness about the condition.
Ten years ago, Staford had her arms hacked off by three men as she slept with her infant son. With help from a charity and aided by prosthetics and a special machine, she started her own knitting business and is now a prominent activist in Tanzania.
"So many things have happened to me in my life, yet here I am. They cut off my arms, but not my will to survive and be something," Staford, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the sidelines of a press conference.
"I want everyone to understand that people with albinism can do great things if they are given opportunities."
The other women told stories of how they were abandoned by their parents when they were born, or how they were bullied at school, or even abused and raped because of having albinism.
Some of the women said they were unaware of what their condition was until they reached adulthood — struggling through school due to poor vision and not understanding why they could not play outside as their skin blistered so easily in the sun.
"I could never see the blackboard in class properly, but the teacher would never believe me when I told them. As a result, I couldn't read or write until I was 25," said Ndlovu, 29.
"My biggest wish is to leave a reference behind for others with albinism. I want young girls with albinism out there to see what we are doing and think 'I can do this too'".
PERSECUTION TO EMPOWERMENT
But the ascent of Kilimanjaro is not going to be easy. As part of their training in May, the women climbed Mount Kenya which stands at 5,199 metres — but two of them had to turn back.
Elia Saikaly, film-maker and co-founder of the expedition, said the women will face near sub-zero temperatures near the top of Kilimanjaro, and the extreme altitude will make it difficult to breath — but all precautions had been taken.
The women are equipped with customised sunglasses and sunscreen to protect their eyes and skin. They have a team of about 50 people — doctor, porters, guides as well as film crew — who will be supporting them.
"Kilimanjaro is not a joke. It's a very difficult mountain to climb," said Saikaly. "But I know they are capable because they are ready — and quite frankly, they have all climbed far greater mountains in their lives."
The women will begin their ascent on Oct. 1 and climb each day for between four to five hours. They hope to reach the summit on Oct. 7.
"This is great and inspiring initiative from so many perspectives. Mount Kilimanjaro has been conquered by thousands of climbers, but never by a team like this," said Marcella Favretto, senior human rights advisor at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Their climb tells a story of extraordinary stamina and heroism — they have experienced stigma, exclusion and in some cases incredible cruel physical harm, yet here they are planning to undertake an expedition which is certainly not within the reach of the majority of us."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla. Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)