The Carmelite sisters run an orphanage for albino children in Mwanza, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of The B.C. Catholic

Albinos’ plight sends Canadian into action

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • April 3, 2018

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – Abandoned. Beaten. Ostracized. Dismembered. Children in Tanzania with albinism face rejection and brutal attacks due to local superstitions about their condition.

It’s news that shocked St. Ann’s parishioner Iris Vlake.

“It’s barbaric,” said Vlake, 72. 

She has travelled across the globe, including other parts of Africa, but the trip that changed her life began when she stepped off a plane in Tanzania.

“They are so needy there,” said Vlake, who arrived as a volunteer to an orphanage in Mwanza run by Carmelite nuns. Of the 1,000 children at the school, 128 of them had albinism and most had been abandoned by their parents.

“When these mothers have these children, they have to put them away. They can’t keep them in their homes or huts because people will come in their doors and steal their children and cut off an arm or hack off a leg.”

It has to do with superstition, Vlake explained. Local witch doctors claim the limbs or genitals of children with albinism have special powers, making them targets of “unspeakable crimes.”

That’s why when the Abbotsford resident learned about the plight of albino children, and that a few people from British Columbia were travelling to Tanzania to help them, she felt compelled to join. She reached out to friends, neighbours, the Catholic Women’s League and even Mary Kay cosmetics, asking for donations of money, sunscreen and hats.

“These children are already coming down with cancer in their 20s, where normally other people with skin cancers don’t come down with them until their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s,” said Vlake.

“They usually only live to about 40 because they usually end up dying of cancer.”

The small team filled a giant suitcase with hats and spent cash donations on buying long-sleeved t-shirts, books and a special meal for the children.

“They couldn’t get their eyes off these hats,” said Vlake. 

One small girl, who didn’t have albinism, became an especially big fan of the senior world traveler.

“She came and jumped into my arms and I bet you I carried her around for almost an hour and a half. My arms were killing me! I tried to put her down and she wouldn’t let me.”

Vlake only spent a day at the orphanage, moving on to serve in other parts of Tanzania with Sr. Lucy Diwi and other Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Dar Es Salaam for a total of three weeks. 

She learned about another group of people facing intense ostracism: young girls.

“They’re in such dire need because first of all, the education over there is nothing.” 

While boys have a decent chance at getting through high school, girls often can’t get past Grade 6 or 7. Many are made to leave school when they are found to be pregnant, a result of sexual abuse and rape.

It’s especially difficult for girls in rural areas. Education, said Vlake, is one of the best ways to help.

She toured an area where the Carmelite sisters hope to build a four-classroom secondary school. Vlake was so moved that when the trip was over, she decided she couldn’t leave Tanzania behind. 

“I need to carry on with this.”

She hopes to help the Carmelites raise the $65,000 needed to build those four classrooms, then return to the African country this year or the next to help them build. 

“This would be the one thing I would really, really like to do.”

(The B.C. Catholic)

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