Staten Island-based charity gives hunted African albino children new limbs, new hope

ByEyewitness News & Associated Press WABC logo
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Pendo Noni takes a break in her room in New York on Wednesday, July 1, 2015.
Pendo Noni, 15, left, Baraka Lusambo, 5, both of Tanzania sit for a fitting for prosthetic limbs with Lance Harms, right, at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
Pendo Noni, left, and Kabula Masanja play a memory card game in New York on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Pendo Noni, 15, of Tanzania is fitted for prosthetic limb at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 23, 2015.
Emmanuel Rutema plays Tic-Tac-Toe with Mwigulu Magesa and tutor June Chung in New York on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.
Pendo Noni, 15, and Baraka Lusambo, 5, both of Tanzania take part in a fitting for prosthetic limbs, on Thursday, July 23, 2015, at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
Emmanuel Rutema keeps his arm elevated while he sleeps in New York on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 after returning from surgery in Philadelphia.
Elissa Montanati, left, founder and director of the Global Medical Relief Fund tries to encourage Kabula Masanja to sing as Pendo Noni tries on a new shirt in New York.
Emmanuel Rutema, 13, of Tanzania, with the hereditary condition of albinism, draws a picture on a clipboard before of his surgery at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
Mwigulu Magesa, 12, left, and Emmanuel Rutema, 13, second right, are fitted for prosthetic limbs at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
Monica Watson, of the Global Medical Relief Fund, holds the hand of Baraka Lusambo, 5, of Tanzania during a fitting for a prosthetic limb.
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Pendo Noni takes a break in her room in New York on Wednesday, July 1, 2015.
AP Photo/ Julie Jacobson

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (WABC) -- Like other little boys, Baraka Cosmas Lusambo loves to play soccer. When he hears music, his feet tap and his face breaks out into a wide smile. During summer pool time recently, he used his left hand to toss a ball through a basketball hoop while red arm floaties keep him above water.

The joy vanished, though, when he was reminded of the night men armed with torches and knives burst into his family's home in western Tanzania, knocked his mother unconscious and sliced off his other hand.

"We were simply sleeping when someone just arrived," Baraka said. "They came to me with machetes."

Baraka has albinism, a condition that leaves the afflicted with little or no pigment in their skin or eyes. In some traditional communities of Tanzania and other countries in Africa, albinos are thought to have magical properties, and their body parts can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market as ingredients in witch doctors' potions said to give the user wealth and good luck.

Albinism affects about one out of every 15,000 people in Tanzania, according to the U.N. Anyone with the condition is at risk, and people attacked once can be attacked again.

But a Staten Island-based charity has allowed Baraka and four other children to escape the threat of hunting for now.

Elissa Montanti started the Global Medical Relief Fund in 1997. The group helps children from crisis zones get custom prostheses. Montanti, moved by an article she read about Baraka, reached out to Under the Same Sun, a Canada-based group that advocates for and protects people with albinism in Tanzania and had been sheltering Baraka since his attack in March.

Montanti also agreed to help four other victims get prosthetics. She brought all five to live for the summer at her charity's home in Staten Island while they underwent the process of getting fitted for and learning to use prostheses about two hours away at Philadelphia Shriners Hospital for Children.

The children have been in the U.S. since June. Once they receive their new limbs after a few months, they will return home to safe houses in Tanzania run by Under the Same Sun. Montanti's fund will bring them back to the U.S. to get new prostheses as they grow.

"They're not getting their arm back," Montanti said. "But they are getting something that is going help them lead a productive life and be part of society and not be looked upon as a freak or that they are less than whole."

On a recent visit to the hospital, Baraka was fitted for a prosthetic right hand. He poked at the flesh-colored plastic hand as it lay beside him on the examination table. His atrophied right arm was barely able to lift the prototype prosthesis, but that was to be expected; it would grow stronger once the prosthetic hand was in place.

The government in Tanzania outlawed witch doctors last year in hopes of curtailing the attacks, but the new law hasn't stopped the butchering. There has been a sharp increase in attacks in Tanzania and neighboring Malawi, according to the U.N. Tanzania recorded at least eight attacks in the past year.

Another victim, 17-year-old Kabula Nkarango Masanja, said that her attackers asked her family for money, and that her mother offered the family's bicycle because they had none. The attackers refused, held the girl down and in three hacks cut off her right arm to the armpit. Before leaving with her arm in a plastic bag, her attackers told her mother other men would be back to take her daughter's organs - but they didn't return.

The girl thinks constantly about her missing limb.

"I feel bad because I still don't know what they did with my arm, where it is, what benefits they derived from it - or if they simply dumped it," said Kabula, a tall girl with a sweet voice who once sang "In the Sweet By and By" for the nonprofit group.

Between trips to the hospital, Montanti has filled the children's summer with typical American activities. In late July, the children went to a swimming pool for the first time ever. Volunteer lifeguards helped them navigate the water.

Montanti said that they've become like her adopted kids, and that she has grown especially close to Baraka.

As the group gathered recently for a barbecue dinner near the pool, Montanti interlocked one of her hands with Baraka's remaining one and whispered, "I love you."