In Tanzania, karate classes imbues vigour in people with albinism

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – Now that he’s learned to fight, Hassan Farahani doesn’t feel he needs to do so anymore.

“When people make jokes or harass me in the street, now I just leave. I have the confidence of martial arts—my strength is here,” he says, gesturing towards his chest.

Farahani, 29, is part of a group of Tanzanians with albinism learning karate in Dar es Salaam, their country’s largest city. The group meets in the evenings to train in a small dojo above an Indian restaurant, shuffling across foam mats under the glare of fluorescent lights, practicing kicks, punches and throws.

Their goal is not just to learn self-defense, but to one day become karate instructors themselves, teaching future generations of Tanzanians with albinism about karate, discipline, and self-confidence.

Before his martial arts training started, Farahani didn’t always have the same mental or physical strength. In school, he was teased and harassed by other children, an experience common to many people with albinism in the country. Unable to afford school fees, he was forced to leave school in Grade 7, but the frustration continued.

In Tanzania, an estimated 1 in 1,400 people in the country have albinism, compared to a rate of about 1 in 20,000 in the United States. So people with the condition there are subject of daily discrimination with their light skin instantly setting them apart as targets.

Myths and superstitions surround Tanzanians with albinism: that they are immortal, that they aren’t human but instead ghosts, or that they are cursed by a deity. Many have been attacked, mutilated and even killed for their body parts, which are believed to hold magical powers. Witchdoctors use these body parts for potions and spells meant to heal sickness, grant political power or bestow wealth and success.

After leaving school, Farahani started practising to play music and eventually joined Albino Revolution, a cultural dance troupe, where he drums and dances with fellow Tanzanians with albinism. Their songs tell the story of their struggles in daily life, calling for equality and acceptance.

Soon enough, the free martial arts training became his focus.

Hassan Farahani, 29, practices a karate takedown on a fellow student during training in Nairobi, Kenya
Hassan Farahani, 29, practices a karate takedown on a fellow student during training in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania [Paul Stremple/Al Jazeera]

‘Like a new person with a new smile’

The training programme was founded by Jerome Mgahama, a karate instructor for over 20 years and founder of the Japanese Karate Association club in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s economic capital. He was inspired to start it after demonstrating martial arts for children with albinism at summer camps organized by NGOs and religious groups in Tanzania.

Often, young children with albinism in Tanzania leave their rural homes to stay at boarding schools or non-profit centers that provide for both their education and safety, said Grace Wabanhu, who works for the non-profit Village of Hope.

She attended one of Mgahama’s summer camp karate sessions and recalled the outpouring of joy from students who practiced martial arts even for a few days over the summer. The physical exercise and new skills were empowering to the students, she told Al Jazeera.

“The challenge we are struggling with is trauma due to albinism,” Wabanhu said. “Students have been abandoned by their families or ostracized from their communities at a young age, while others have survived attacks themselves, or seen family members brutalized in attacks.”

Mgahama taught as many summer classes as he could, but realised he couldn’t reach all the children he wanted to on his own. So he returned to Dar es Salaam and began a free, long-term training program designed to train older Tanzanians with albinism as karate instructors, in hopes of vastly expanding the programme’s reach.

In 2021, he began with a core of ten new students including Farahani. At the outset, the students with albinism were timid around the rest of his students, Mgahama said. Now, before practice, the groups are fully mixed, with students milling around, stretching and joking together as they warm up for training.

Classes take place three evenings each week and students like Farahani travel hours through city traffic to attend. Finishing practice well after dark, many don’t arrive back home until midnight.

Students stick together when they travel from class, constantly analysing passers-by, avoiding groups for fear of an altercation because even in the relatively liberal Dar es Salaam, people with albinism live with a constant undercurrent of anxiety, wary of strangers.

Walking home from class late one evening, Farahani and Kelvin Emmanuel, another student, approached a corner where a group of young men waited to cross the street. Without a word, the two split up, standing on either side of the group, watching for any threatening actions. After they’d crossed the street and turned a corner, they rejoined each other and kept walking.

“You never know what someone’s true intentions are, so you always have to be careful,” said Emmanuel. “It becomes a way of life.”

But Mgahama sees a major change in the way his students move through the world and can’t hide his enthusiasm about their progress. “Every day it is like a new person with a new smile,” he said.

“Our guys now, they have that confidence,” he added. “Now they can allow themselves to walk at night.”

Jerome Mgahama, a karate instructor for more than 20 years
Jerome Mgahama, a karate instructor for more than 20 years, began the training program for Tanzanians with albinism in 2021 people with albinism in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania [Paul Stremple/Al Jazeera]

‘It’s just a colour’

The core group has been training for more than a year, and most students have reached the rank of green belt, about a third of the way through the program. Once he earns his black belt, Farahani looks forward to becoming a karate instructor and passing on his teaching to all Tanzanians who are interested.

Before class, he leads fellow students through warm-ups, trotting back and forth on the mats, throwing strikes, grappling together. In June, five more students joined the program, and a cohort of 15 to 20 new students with albinism will begin training in September.

“We are trying to show that people with albinism are just as capable as anyone else,” said Farahani. “It’s just a colour.”

For him, it is important guidance for children with albinism finding their way through a society still harbouring prejudices. He hopes future martial arts demonstrations, camps and classes will inspire them, especially those that live in rural areas and spend much of their time hidden away from the world, to be braver.

“They’ll see our skills and they’ll understand,” Farahani said. “They’ll see our confidence, our strength, and they’ll understand that they are just as capable as us.”

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