Home » Being African, Albino, And Endangered | Ọlá W. Halim

Being African, Albino, And Endangered | Ọlá W. Halim

“…the condition that makes me black but not black, white but not white…I will tell you all about it.”

—Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory. 

In 2014, I watched one of the most devastating videos of my life: albinos huddled together in the bush; behind them, a cluster of thatch and tarpaulin constructions. They are old. They are young. They are male. They are female. They do not have more than a head each. They sweat. They urinate. They get sad, happy, horny, depressed, shy. There are no claws or tentacles where their fingernails should be. They neither roar nor chirp. They are human like everyone else. But they are crouching here like animals sniffing a hunter’s presence. Their only crime is being born in a skin different from others around them. 

And so, most of their limbs have to go. What you see looking at them are stumps, prosthetic arms, pain, misery, disability. 

They were not born that way; they were only disfigured by those who consider them diabolical (enough to be annihilated). Many of them continue to disappear daily, only to be found later, and mutilated. Their communities have become battlefields for them, a garden where they are harvested, plucked off like ripe mangoes. That is why we see them here, cowered, breathless, hiding in these bushes of thatch and tarpaulin, hiding from their hunters. 

Those who make it here are considered lucky because some are hacked to death, and others die before they receive medical attention. Some of the women are raped because, among other albinistic superstitions, it is believed that they secrete substances that could cure HIV.[1] Many of these women are not able to live normal lives anymore. Many more die. 

Even in death, albino graves are dug and their bones exhumed. An AlJazeera article titled “Killed for their Bones” [2] chronicles the activities of a certain Stenala who went “in search of a grave he’d been told houses the corpse of a person with albinism”. Prior to that, “when friends asked if he’d [Stenala] help them deliver a set of [albino] bones to a client—promising it would make him “rich enough to drive”—he says he was tempted”.[3] 

It is Tanzania. There are a lot of albinos here. An albinistic member of the Tanzanian parliament recorded (at that time) 6,977 registered albinos in the country[4]. There are speculations that over 17, 000 births remain undocumented [5], most of whom are born in the countryside. Albinism, which is said to affect one in every 20,000 [6] people, tends to be most common here in Sub-Saharan Africa, occurring in one in every 5000. Most of them are concentrated in Malawi, Burundi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania. 

This devastating video is shot in Tanzania, on Ukerewe Island—one of the hidden homes for albinos who can no longer cohabit with others because of the massacre. They are safe here, out of reach of their hunters, but ostracized from their families and friends, secluded for life. 

Over the years, albinism had been traditionally associated with dangerous superstitions.[7] It is believed that:

  • They possess evil powers which manifest in their skin and (in particular) the strange colour of their eyes 
  • Their eyes were meant to navigate the night (due to their poor vision at daytime), and since night is often associated with evil, albinos must be evil beings
  • They are ghosts who either died untimely or were not properly buried
  • They are products of illicit affairs with white men
  • They are daft and therefore should not live in mainstream society[8]
  • They are suffering from ailments beyond scientific knowledge, and physical contact with them could get someone else infected
  • They should be offered as ‘exotic’ sacrifices to the gods when natural disasters like flooding and volcanic eruptions occur. 

For these reasons, albinism continues to face deliberate, systematic extinction in Malawi, Tanzania and Burundi. Witchdoctors affirm that their body parts are super-potent when used in charms because they are from rare species. Albino body parts are sold in black markets. It is big business. A set of arms and legs goes for as much as $75,000 [9]. Talking of a whole body, complete with ears, tongues, hair and genitals, you are talking millions of dollars! The bones are treated in secret basements, then dried, then cut into the desired shapes (mostly thin and elongated: pendant-size) to be worn as amulets or buried wherever the seeker’s establishment is located, such as the mines, warehouses, by the lake, in a political rival’s backyard, etc.[10]

But albinos are neither ghosts nor abominable beings. Albinism merely occurs when an individual partially or completely lacks the skin colouring pigment, melanin. It manifests in two main forms: ocular (in which one only lacks melanin in the eye, making other body parts dark) and oculocutaneous (where one lacks melanin throughout the body: skin, hair, eyes). While someone with partial pigmentation is (technically) referred to as albinoid—”having ‘the likeness of’ an albino”—an albino, in technical terms, is one with a complete lack of melanin [11]

Melanin performs important functions in the skin of a melano (i.e a non-albino). It protects the melanoid [12] skin from ultraviolet radiation, and thus, such skin, no matter its exposure to the sun, hardly burns. But with an oculocutaneous albino, the opposite is the case. The skin, unprotected, burns,[13] ultimately (if precautions are not taken) leading to skin problems such as squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma[14]—malevolent skin cancers affecting pale-skinned people. 

Lack of melanin in the eyes also leads to problems with sight. Normally, melanin gives the eye colouration and opacity. In the case of an albino, the eye can be transparent, exposing the retina (usually reddish) through the iris. For the optical system to develop fully, melanin plays a crucial role, and because of its absence in albinos, they may suffer from eye conditions such as

  • Photophobia: extreme sensitivity to strong, sudden or persistent light[15]
  • Amblyopia/astigmatism: the intermittent blurring of the eye due to poor transmission of signals to the brain [16] 
  • Strabismus: imbalance or inability of both eyes to focus simultaneously on an object 
  • Nystagmus: involuntary, usually rapid, eye movement. 

Albinism, if well understood and managed, is not a life-threatening condition. People with the condition just need to, first of all, limit outdoor activities. They can obtain sunglasses to protect the eyes from ultraviolet rays, and for the skin, it is recommended they wear protective clothing and sunscreen whenever they are outside in the hot afternoon sun [17]. In extreme eye conditions, surgeries may be required to balance optical muscles. 

Unfortunately, the problems faced by albinos are not restricted to health. They face social stigma simply based on their skin colour differences and disabilities. Most albinos are isolated early in life in the bid to avoid the sun, and this is heightened by fellow children (and sometimes adults) who make derogatory innuendos about them. In most traditional learning environments, the albino finds it difficult to follow lessons because they usually cannot see the board clearly and placing them very close to it could cause them shame and embarrassment. Hence, many drop out early from school. Since there are no indoor jobs for dropouts, they turn to menial jobs to survive, thus increasing the occurrence of skin cancers. Albinism also comes with comparatively limited job prospects and difficulties with romantic relationship and marriage. In addition to all these, albinos are being hunted and chopped down in Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, and Burundi and elsewhere every passing day, for simply coming in a different skin, and the world is largely doing nothing because it can defend itself by claiming ignorance later in the future. 

References

[1] Machipisa, Lewis. “The Last Minority Group to Find a Voice”. IPSNews.net. Inter Press Service News Agency. Archived from the original on 21 January 2009. Retrieved 22 January 2021. United Nations General Assembly: Human Rights Council, 24th Session (12 September 2013) Persons with Albinism. Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Accessed 19 June 2016. 

[2] https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2017/malawi-killed-for-their-bones/index.html Accessed 13 August 2018.

[3] ibid. 

[4] “Advocacy Report: Through Albino Eyes – The Plight of Albino People in Africa’s Great Lakes Region and a Red Cross Response”. Accessed 16 June 2016. 

[5] “Man ‘tried to sell’ albino wife”. BBC News. 2008. Retrieved June 16 2016.

[6] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/albinism-malawi-living-fear-160508112147961.html Accessed 12 January 2019. 

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_people_with_albinism?wprov=sfla1  Accessed 12 June 2018. 

[8] Kuster, R (2000) White Skin, Black Souls. New African. 

[9] “Advocacy Report: Through Albino Eyes – The Plight of Albino People in Africa’s Great Lakes Region and a Red Cross Response” (PDF). IFRC.org

[10] United Nations General Assembly: Human Rights Council, 24th Session (12 September 2013) Persons with Albinism. Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[11] Tietz, W. (1963). “A Syndrome of Deaf-Mutism Associated with Albinism Showing Dominant Autosomal Inheritance” in American Journal of Human Genetics.

[12] i.e “non-albino”. 

[13] Chen, Harold (2006). Atlas of genetic diagnosis and counselling. Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press.

[14] You can read my poem about melanoma here: https://nigeriannewsdirect.com/melanoma/

[15] Chen, Harold (2006). Atlas of genetic diagnosis and counselling. Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press.

[16] ibid. 

[17] https://www.healthline.com/health/albinism Accessed 20 June 2016. 

Biography

Ọlá W. Halim writes fiction and poetry from Edo State, Nigeria, where he also teaches English Language and Literature. He is the winner of several prizes, both for his art and for teaching: the 2020 PIN Annual Food Poetry Contest, the 2020 LitFest Prize for Prose, the 2019 TFCN Literature Teacher’s Prize (shortlist) and the 2019 Sehvage Short Story Prize (shortlist). His major thematic concerns include albinism, feminism and the LGBTQ. He currently edits prose for ARTmosterrific