Defying the Odds
How Kondowe is Rewriting the Story of Persons with Albinism in Malawi
This essay was originally submitted to the 2022 Troubling Power Essay Competition.
Growing up in a society where Persons with Albinism (PWA) are regarded as mpamba (wealth) and not human beings entitled to human rights like any other has been frustrating for many PWA in Malawi. However, one man with albinism has proved to be a game-changer.
Born in 1978 along the Lakeshore district of Nkhotakota, Overstone Kondowe has defied all forms of discrimination PWA face to become the first PWA in Africa to be elected as a Member of Parliament in Malawi. His story is a tale of a man who has spent over 20 years investing in himself to prove to the world that albinism is not an inability and fighting for the rights of PWA and other disabilities. He has proved that with good leadership and political will, this world can be a better place for PWA and other disabilities.
Since colonial times, PWA in Malawi, and Africa have been subjected to cruelty ranging from being banished to being killed in cold blood for rituals. It all started by recognizing albinism as a curse to the family, followed by their exclusion from communities. Women who tried to protect their children with albinism were treated as enemies of society. They were victimized, divorced, and chased out of the villages. Most women ended up concealing births of children with albinism and dumping them before society knows.
For many years, it was believed that PWA do not die, but disappear as they are not human beings. It is not clear who created this narrative, but the truth is that they were being killed silently for wealth rituals. This has become more apparent in the democratic era. Cases of abduction and killing of PWA for their bones have become popular in regions, particularly in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. In Malawi, several suspects have been taken to court for killing PWA to harvest their body parts for rituals and riches and most of them have pleaded guilty to the charge. Another popular rhetoric has been that herbs made for the body parts of PWA are used to help politicians to win elections. However, no politician has ever been arrested for buying body parts.
According to Malawi court documents, some suspects said they were tricked by some people that there is a high selling market for PWA’s body parts because their bones have gold. Others said they were told some herbalists use the body parts for rituals to make one rich. Nonetheless, despite these court cases sending many to prison, they have not helped the country to identify the PWA body parts market nor offer scientific proof of special minerals in their bones, as all suspects claim they were tricked into believing. In a recent case in which twelve people were convicted of murdering a 22-year-old PWA, one of the suspects, a Catholic priest, is quoted in a story published by Malawi Voice on May 31, 2022, pleading with the judge for leniency:
“…I know that I have offended many. Please my Lady I have changed… This mistake just happened; I am here because a police officer tricked me. I beg for your mercy. I am a changed person now.”
Since 2019, several convicts have been sent to jail for life-term sentences. However, this has not stopped the abduction and killing of persons with albinism both in Malawi and in neighboring countries. In February 2021, Amnesty International reported that Malawi has recorded over 170 crime cases against PWA and more than twenty murders since 2014.
Thus, these barbaric acts continue to make life hard for PWA in Malawi. They live in fear and cannot pursue a career. At school and other public places, they face exclusion and discrimination which is keeping many out of school. They have been called names like “walking money”, “monsters”, “business capital”, “wealth”, etc… Abductors have also taken advantage of the routes to schools to target students with albinism. This has forced many to drop out of school. Today PWA forms the largest percentage of people without formal education and living on alms. Thus, as the world sings the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) theme song, ‘Leaving No One Behind,’ barely does it bring a smile to PWA in Malawi as efforts to end this barbaric act are proving ineffective.
Kondowe’s story is important because it departs from the normative and takes a social justice approach that empowers PWA and persons with other disabilities to be part of solving their problems. He wants them to stand up and fight for their rights and freedoms without fear and he has modelled this through his activism.
After years of activism which included serving as Executive Director of the Association of Persons with Albinism (APAM), an association that advocates for the rights of PWA, Kondowe rose to the frontline of fighting the abduction and killing of PWA. Since 2020, he has cast a new dawn for PWA and disabilities in Malawi with his appointment to serve as Presidential Advisor on Persons with Disabilities and Albinism in Malawi. He has used his story as a person with albinism to inspire PWA and other disabilities to ensure the government is giving them the necessary attention and support.
Several times, Kondowe has confessed in public that growing up with albinism in Malawi is a horror. He recalls the discrimination he suffered his entire life, physically, socially, psychologically, and academically. In fighting for social justice for PWA, he has spent nights in prison. He has repeatedly said he does not want the same to happen to other people with albinism, particularly those born in recent years. He has inspired children with albinism in various ways by bringing them together in camps and different party gatherings. He is also against PWA begging along the streets because he believes they can do something and support themselves. His life story testifies to this.
Kondowe’s approach to social justice is twofold: influencing the government to provide the necessary support to PWA and other disabilities and empowering the victims to stand up for themselves. He is a leader with vision and in the three years he has been in government, he has given PWA and other disabilities a new hope.
Since his first year as a presidential advisor, Kondowe has influenced several policy decisions in favor of PWA and other disabilities. He has demonstrated outstanding leadership by successfully lobbying for special privileges for PWA and other disabilities. He single-handily visited various public and private organizations to preach inclusivity in workplaces. He also convinced the government to create a quota for qualified PWA and disabilities to be recruited into the civil service and given loans. This has increased the number of PWA, and other disabilities being admitted to public colleges. In 2021/2022, several qualified PWA were recruited as primary school teacher trainees, and early this year, two others Vasco Hamid and Brenda Mhlanga became the first PWA to be recruited as police officers in Malawi under his initiative.
Many deserving PWA have received government loans to start small-scale businesses to empower themselves. Children with albinism are being sent to boarding schools for their safety. His works have also demonstrated political will that has been missing from the office of the president, and this is being attributed to the effective prosecution of suspects believed to have had a hand in the abduction and killing of PWA. There is also an improvement in government funding in projects targeting PWA. Now, the country has a national action plan for PWA which is included in the national budget. All these have cast a new hope for PWA, and some are now pursuing careers.
After two years in the office of the presidential advisor, Kondowe contested for a parliamentary seat in Nkhotakota North-East Constituency and won it in December 2021. This has made him the first PWA in Malawi and the whole of Southern Africa to be a Member of Parliament. He is a role model to many.
As a parliamentarian and activist, Kondowe is determined to ensure PWA and other disabilities can thrive like any other in Malawi, a critical contribution to SDGs. His next task is to see to it that Malawi has laws and policies that promote social justice for all persons with disabilities and a ministry for disabilities responsible for the affairs of all persons with disabilities. Beyond the borders, he wants the African continent to be a home where everyone can flourish. He is currently the Chairperson of the African Union for PWA where he is playing a critical role in ensuring all PWA in Africa are safe and empowered.