10 years ago I arrived on a remote Island in the heart of Tanzania’s Lake Victoria to make a documentary for the BBC.
Over the next six years I followed the lives of two inspiring men with albinism — Josephat and Vedastus — who bravely fought discrimination amid escalating witchcraft-fuelled attacks. The film became a testament to their inner strength in the face of this violence and has gone on to inspire people all over the world.
Ukerewe Island has a large population of people with albinism. Local folklore attributes this to a legend in which large numbers of people with albinism were taken from the mainland and dumped there as children and left to die.
In 2006, I began to document the Island’s Albinism Society as they moved from village to village to determine how many people with albinism were living on the island.
This survey discovered 62 people with albinism living on the Island. For many of these people it was the first time they had talked openly about their lives.
Individuals spoke bravely about the depth of discrimination they had faced: people had been treated like animals, locked away in dark rooms, forced to eat from separate plates to their siblings in the fear their condition was contagious. Many had attempted suicide and Women talked of being raped in the belief that their albinism could cure HIV/AIDS.
During the six years as an embedded filmmaker in Tanzania, 72 people with albinism were murdered and many others had been left mutilated. Some of these I had met personally.
I witnessed first-hand the daily struggles Tanzanians with albinism face: abandonment and domestic violence, rejection by their communities, and marginalisation from health and education services.
I discovered how complex this picture is: killings are the horrific tip of an iceberg, the most visible facet of a deeper social problem.
I believe that the key to ending human rights abuses against people with albinism is to show that they are human, to teach communities that a person with albinism is just that: a person, no different to anyone else.
Perhaps this explains the extraordinary global reaction to In the Shadow of the Sun: from Papua New Guinea to India to the United States, audiences worldwide could relate to Josephat and Vedastus in their quest for recognition and determination to belong. We’ve all felt different or have been labelled at some point in our lives, and I believe it was this that captured the hearts of so many viewers.
10 years on, the documentary has screened on television and in cinemas in 80 countries worldwide and continues to discover new viewers each day.
In 10 years i’ve been involved in this cause the subject has become a huge part of my life. Filming this documentary and witnessing its extraordinary global response led me to found Standing Voice, a UK and Tanzanian registered charity that exists to defend the rights of people with albinism in Africa.
We deliver Health, Education, Advocacy and Community Programmes, creating platforms for thousands of people with albinism to speak back to their societies and claim equality.
Everyday we see how social integration improves health and education, creates jobs, and builds stronger civil support networks to protect people with albinism from future persecution.
To this day I work closely with the Ukerewe Albinism Society. Standing Voice recently completed construction of a training centre on the island, and many residents continue to benefit from our Health and Education Programmes.
If I compare the Ukerewe I first encountered ten years ago with the place I see today, the difference is incredible: huge strides have been made. But for every Ukerewe there are countless communities in dire need of help.