African Albinos: a threatened specie

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African Albinos: a threatened specie

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African Albinos: a threatened specie

(This article was published in the February 2010 edition of the New African Magazine.)


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salif keita1

No one can accuse Africans of not being very funny creatures. Travel the length the breadth of this very fantastically beautiful and hugely blessed continent and you will notice how people of the European Stock (apologies to Baffour Ankomah) continue to be treated with huge respect.

In Nigeria, children will be seen running after the scaliest of European wags screaming, ‘Oyinbo, oyinbo.’ In Ghana where a European face will open any door, they are called ‘Obroni,’ with great affection. In Eastern and Southern Africa, the very complimentary appellation is ‘Mzungu.’

By a very curious but yet unfathomable logic, whilst Africans continue to worship human beings with white skins that came from Europe; the same people continue to kill human beings with white skins if they happen to be Africans.

Lamentably, in this globalized age of internet and things, there are still people whose prejudices against Albinos are as long as your arm. Some of the myths concocted by these jaundiced and totally bigoted people include such nonsense that:

I. Albinos do not die but only vanish after some stage of their lives.
II. Albinos can see only at night.
III. Albinos do not attend nature’s call on Friday.
IV. When Albinos whistle ants do not sleep in night.
V. Albinos are born only when there is a failure in an attempt to abort a baby.
VI. Albinos will become blind halfway through life.

It matters little that these are purely jejune nonsense. Albinos do not vanish; no one does. And certainly not all albinos are photophobic.

Were Albinos in Africa to be facing only irrational bigotry that, in itself, would have been serious enough. But they are still being used for totally absurd rituals.

Africa is indeed a place of mind-bogging contradictions. Africa is a place where someone will go through the rigors a university education, follow a rigorous scientific training, acquire all the degrees available yet will believe that tying a talisman to a waist is protection against car accident. It is a place where people still believe that nature is governed by supernatural forces that could be appease by bathing in olive oil and dancing senseless at ‘prayer retreats.’

In a recent election rerun in Ekiti State of Nigeria, people resorted to the chanting of incantations and the display of charms and amulets. Ironically, almost every family in Ekiti state boasts a PhD degree holder and the state’s motto is: “Fountain of Knowledge,”

This writer incurred the ire of many Ghanaians when last year he told off a Ghanaian pastor who had gone to the Akosombo dam to invoke the power of the almighty to send down the rain. In an article in The Mirror (Ghana), I wrote that the sciences of rain are too well known to require the intervention of some goblins in the sky. May people called for my head.

In this age and time when the luminous light of science is revealing nature’s darkest secrets, many in our dear continent still believe that spilling Albinos’ blood will yield better crop, guarantee business success, help in passing examinations, help in winning elections, drive off evil spirits and help to gain financial success. Sadly many people are still willing to perform the same rituals their ancestors in Egypt were performing eons ago.yelllowman1

Few years ago, some people in Tanzania decided that the fastest and surest way to instant prosperity is by using parts from Albinoid people. What started as a prank in the Northern part of the country soon spread like wide fire until it engulfed the whole nation. The numbers rose dramatically as rumors spread of the efficacy of potent of juju concocted with Albino blood and body parts.

Today Albinos in Tanzania have to take refuge in camps which is the only place they feel safe.

Early this year Bukuruwa a sleepy town in Ghana’s Eastern Region shot to national prominence when its chief announce that the safety of Albinos living in his domain can no longer be guaranteed because their god had issue with Albinos some three hundred years ago.

In many parts of Ghana (and Africa), Albinos are still seen as outcast. So entrenched are superstitious beliefs in many parts of the country that many people believe that the spate of accidents ravaging the country can be stayed by the sacrifice of Albinos. There are two reported cases of Albino killing at Sunyani in the Brong Ahafo region of the country. And recently it was alleged that Albinos were sacrificed to win elections in the December 2008 elections. Figures are difficult to come by, but the Society of Albinos-Ghana (SOA-G) believes that many Albinos are being senselessly killed across the land for ritual sacrifices.

The president of the SOA-G, Mr. John David Tuu Yawanah, in an interview with New Africa opined that its member face giant societal stigmatization that make their lives very miserable and pose direct threat to their lives.

The insults and humiliations Albinos face in Ghana are many. People call them all sorts of names, the favorite being ‘oflijato,’ meaning ‘borrowed skin ‘ in the Akan language. Albinos are openly discriminated against. The Bukuwura chief that made the threat has so far received no sanction whatever even though his condemnable and actionable utterances clearly breached the Ghanaian Constitution which forbids discrimination on any ground whatsoever.

Even though the nature of albinism makes working in the open African sun difficult enough, but then few employers will even consider them for any sort of employment to begin with. The Department of Social Welfare responsible for catering to the disabled also stubbornly refuses to recognize their peculiar disabilities.

Albinism is simply a defect in the body production of the melanin. Melanin is the substance responsible for giving color (pigment) to our skin, hair, and eyes. It is found in both human being and animals. In plants, the lack of melanin (chlorophyll) results in the plant’s inability to produce photosynthesis necessary for it sustenance and survival. Though some authors have sought to link melanin with, among other things, intelligence and spiritually, there’s no scientific basis whatever to support such bogus claims.

Albinism (from Latin albus, “white”, also called achromia, achromasia, or achromatosis) is a form of hypopigmentary congenital disorder, characterized by a partial (in hypomelanism, also known as hypomelanosis) or total (amelanism or amelanosis) lack of melanin pigment in the eyes, skin and hair, or more rarely in the eyes alone.” Wikipedia.

According to the website of the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), “The word “albinism” refers to a group of inherited conditions. People with albinism have little or no pigment in their eyes, skin, or hair. They have inherited altered genes that do not make the usual amounts of a pigment called melanin. One person in 17,000 in the U.S.A. has some type of albinism. Albinism affects people from all races. Most children with albinism are born to parents who have normal hair and eye color for their ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes people do not recognize that they have albinism.“

And according to MedinePlus Medical Encyclopaedia, “There are two main types of albinism:

• Type 1 albinism is caused by defects that affect production of the pigment, melanin.
• Type 2 albinism is due to a defect in the “P” gene. People with this type have slight coloring at birth.

The killing of Albinos might have a direct link with the new craze in much of Africa whereby people, especially the young ones, want to get rich quickly without working for it.

salif keita3

They seem to be following the script in the movie: Get Rich or Die Trying. Their only desire in life is an unbridled primitive accumulation of material things. In Ghana where it’s known as SAKAWA, children as young as 18 have abandoned schools and are resorting to every form of magic which they believe will guarantee them instant wealth. There have been many reports of young people dying or going mad under very mysterious circumstances after undergoing very nasty rituals.

It is sad that much of Africa’s hallowed customs and cultures are being daily bastardized. In years gone by, no one in our societies dared displayed a wealth of unknown source. In those days, a parent will question a child who brought any strange object to the house. Nowadays no one seems to have much respect for hard-work, honesty and integrity.

In years past, many weird rituals were performed in many traditional African societies. These include the killing of twins who were believed to be aberrant of nature. Gladly, enlightenment has all but banished but few of these misguided beliefs.

The killings of human beings with any form of deformity ought to be strongly condemned. We Africans need to properly educate ourselves that we have to join the rest of humanity in embracing science and technology even as we strive to maintain our cultural integrity. Our opinion leaders owe it a duty to help in educating the people that it’s high time we jettison ancient ideas that are as irrational as they are anachronistic. There is no antidote to poverty alleviation but good education, hard work, clever management of our immense resources and learning to live within our means. It’s a fantastic pseudo-science that crop yield could be increased by spilling blood, any blood. Better irrigation systems will yield better harvest than all the body parts of all the Albinos in our dear continent.

The Interview

Femi Akomolafe interview with Mr. John David Tuu Yawanah, President of Society of Albino – Ghana

Q: What motivated you to set up the Society of Albino – Ghana?

A: I was a lecturer at the Political Science department of the University of Ghana, Legon before I took it upon myself to take up the cause of the people with albinism. Our daily lives are suffocated with unbridled prejudices and discriminations even from people who should know better. Imagine that I, at the very summit of academia, is daily subjected to very revolting indignities. What then about the ordinary Albino who is a virtual nobody?

Q. Your society recently called a press conference to protest the Bukuruwa issue whereby the chief called for the ostracization of Albinos, what has been the reaction so far?

A: Sorry to say, not much was achieved. We got a few mention in the papers – buried deep in the hard-to-locate crannies. The radios also played it for a minute or so and it was all forgotten. Sadly, we have not had a reaction from the government or any of the state institutions. We are talking fundamental human rights here! We are supposedly a republic of law and order, how on earth can any person, no matter how highly placed, virtually called for the killing of another human being with those in authority not reacting at all? We have petitioned as high as the presidency with absolutely no one minding us.

Q: Your society operates under the umbrella of the Ghana federation of the Disabled, why is that?

A: Funnily, people do not think of Albinos as physically-challenged to use that politically-correct word. But the truth is that we suffer from a host of ailments of which seven different forms of cancer are prime examples. We also have serious problems with our eye sights. Think of it this way, we are the only disabled people who cannot organize a protest march. We simply cannot walk in the harsh African sun lest we suffer severe burnt. So, we have to suffer in silence or organize press conferences that are poorly attended and under-reported.

Q. Do you get any help from the government or any organization, internal or external?

A: Unfortunately not. The society is being funded solely by my personal resources and the resources of a few of our members with the wherewithal to help. I have a BMW workshop that generates a small income which I use to fund most of the activities of the society. The government refuses to see our conditions as demanding special treatment. I was recently in Malawi and there they have special Albino units in some of their hospitals manned by people with albinism. In contrast to Ghana where we have had cases where doctors and nurses refused to treat Albinos. Being a NGO we are supposed to be tax-exempted, but as I am talking to you now, I have a consignment of creams donated to our society by a benevolent outsider rotten at the Tema port. The reason is that we do not have the money to clear them from the port. And of course such creams are too expensive to be purchased locally.

Q. What have you been doing to publicize the plight of Albinos in Ghana and to educate the people of Ghana about what albinism exactly is?

A: Publicity, my brother, cost money, tons of it. Sadly the newspapers here are all into sports and politics with scant coverage of health or social issues. We have had sympathetic media people like Blakk Rasta who has taken up our cause. We do our best to issue press release and speak at forums but what do we do when editors decide to bury our stories deep inside their papers? I have approached the radio and TV stations for help in publicizing our plights, but they are all demanding huge sums that we simply do not have.

Q: How about the churches and other religious body?

A: Sad to say but we have scored zilch on that front also since the demise of Dr. Apostle Okey Ntimi of the Pentecost Church. Among all the religious leaders, he was our sole indefatigable champion. Since his death no other religious leader has deemed it fit or necessary to help us. This in a way is very strange. They are there preaching about a God that created all of us, yet they tacitly sanction the discrimination against some of the creator’s creature? I don’t know how to square that.

Q: How about your own immediate family, do you suffer discrimination from them as well?

A: From my nuclear family, I’ll say no. We are a family of eight. Both my parents are carriers and among the children half are Albino and the other three are not. So there’s no problem there, but even member of my extended family openly taunt me. I waged a battle before I could marry my wife. Her aunt was so hostile that on the occasions that she caught us together she threw water on us. Sadly she died in a car crash where she had gone to recruit her sister (my mother-in-law) in her cause to stop our marriage. Some of her family member even brought military policemen to come and threaten me. Up till today, there are still family houses where my wife is a persona non grata. My wife is not an Albino and our children are also not but the children are carriers. That means that should they marry other carriers, their offspring will suffer from albinism.

Q: And among your friends and colleagues?

A: The discrimination is both overt and covert. Many of my friends openly show prejudices without even realizing it. I was once in the company of a friend when he met one of his friends and asked for some money. His friend retorted that he was a fool to be asking him for money when he was walking with money. It means that we Albinos are good potions for money-making juju. People have openly threatened to send me to where I shall never return. And law enforcement officers have also publicly called me names.

Q: How do you feel when you see Africans embracing Europeans on the streets and treat Albinos like vermin?

A: I have traveled the length and breadth of Africa one thing I noticed is that we Africans have serious inferiority-complex problem. We worship everything as long as it does not remind us of our Africaness. I have some books where it was said that Europeans are Albinos Africans casted away in years past. I don’t know how far that theory is true or not, but I want people, especially Africans, to know is that we are also children of God. One of the rhymes we were taught in primary school is: To laugh at infirmity or deformity is enormity.’ How do we then grow up saddled with all these excess baggage of absolutely nonsensical prejudices and bigotry? If one accepts God as possessing infinite wisdom, it does not add up to condemn one of his creations. HIV/AIDS is a dreadful and easily contagious illness, albinism is not infectious. Albinism is hereditary and cannot be transmitted by blood transfusion or any vector. How then do we explain the situation whereby we Albinos are considered as the lowest forms of life?

Q: Have you considered internationalizing your plight? For example international stars like the Malian singer, Salif Keita, and the reggae superstar Yelloman are Albinos, have you solicited their help?

A: I am the Chairman of the pan-African organization for Albinos. We try to coordinate our activities at the African continent level. I have travel all over Africa to compare notes and share experience with my brothers and sisters across the continent. No, I have not contacted stars like Salif Keita and Yellowman simply because I do not have the links to them.

Q: And your message to the reader of this magazine?

A: My plea is that we Albinos suffer enough as it were and people should not compound our woes. We did not choose to suffer from albinism. We have no choice but to accept our fate, but people should realize that since no one knows tomorrow, they should be more sensitive to the ways and manners they relate to people with any form of deformity. We welcome any help that will alleviate our woes and enable members of our society or any disabled person to live a fulfilled life. We are all sojourners on mother earth and we ought to treat one another with respect, solidarity and dignity. It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do!

salif keita2


About the Author

Femi Akomolafe is a passionate Pan-Africanist. A columnist for the Accra-based Daily Dispatch newspaper and Correspondent for the New African magazine. Femi lives in both Europe and Africa, and writes regularly on Africa-related issues for various newspapers and magazines.

Femi was the producer of the FOCUS ON AFRICANS TV Interview programme for the MultiTV Station.

He is also the CEO of Alaye Dot Biz Limited Dot Biz, a Kasoa-based Multimedia organisation that specialises in Audio and Video Production. He loves to shoot and edit video documentaries.

His highly-acclaimed books (“Africa: Destroyed by the gods,” “Africa: It shall be well,” “18 African Fables & Moonlight Stories” and “Ghana: Basic Facts + More”) are now available for sales at the following bookshops/offices:

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