The plight of Albinos varies from one zone and culture to another. The Yorubas call an Albino Afin, while it is known as Anyali or Anyabeke in Igbo language.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines Albino as a “a person or an animal that is born with no colour (pigment) in the hair or skin which are white or in the eyes which are pink.” In the New Webster’s dictionary, Albino is defined as a “person with congenital deficiency of pigment in the skin and hair which are white and in the eyes which have a deep red pupil and pink or blue iris, and are unable to bear ordinary light”.
Apart from the vision problems associated with all Albinos and the tendency for them to have damaged skin since they lack melanin pigment that helps to absorb the ultra violet (UV) light, they are stigmatized and discriminated against in many parts of the world.
In Southern Nigeria, which constitutes the South East, South South and South West geopolitical zones of the country, the plight of Albinos varies from one zone and culture to another. The Yorubas call an Albino Afin, while it is known as Anyali or Anyabeke in Igbo language. And the state or quality of being an albino is referred to as Albinism.
It is a hereditary condition that causes little or no pigmentation in people’s (also animal’s) eyes, skin and hair. They have inherited altered genes that do not make the usual amount of pigment called “Melanin”. Melanin is the dark brown or black pigment found in human and animals that makes the hair and skin dark. Spouses without albinism give birth to albinos because its gene is recessive which does not manifest even when the affected person is a carrier. Both parents must have a defective gene to have a child with albinism. The major role of melanin pigment in the skin is to absorb the ultraviolet light that comes from the sun so that the skin is not damaged.
Although some people with Albinism have reddish or violet eyes, most have hazel or brown eyes. The colour of the iris varies from dull grey to blue to brown. A brown iris is common with ethnic groups with darker pigmentation. All forms of Albinism are associated with vision problem that are as a result of abnormal development of the retina, and abnormal patterns of nerve connection between the eye and the brain.
Albinos show various types of Albinism with their different modes of transmission; oculocutaneous – ocular pertaining to eye and vision and cutaneous pertaining to the skin. The much higher incidence among the more settled communities in southern Nigeria compare with the more nomadic communities in Northern Nigeria may be related to greater in breeding tendencies in the south.
The sun and society are hostile to the Albinos. Under the tropical sunshine, their melanin deficient skin develops wrinkles, lentigines, actinic keratosis and epitheljiomata from which they may die in early adult life or middle age. An estimate obtained from the National Population Commission of Nigeria (NPCN) put the number of Albinos at about two million which could be higher.
Myopia and other ocular defects like Nystagmus (Involuntary horizontal movement of the eyes back and forth) and Strabismus (Imbalance of the eye muscles leading to “cross–eye”) retard the progress of many Albinos in school and they eventually drop out to seek disastrous menial outdoor occupation. In this part of the world, they are much more prone to skin cancer and have shorter life expectancy.
An insight I have often heard though, not scientifically proven is that Albinos should avoid taking salt in their meals to improve their pigment. Hence, the popular saying in Yoruba “Afin ojeyo ako isu niije,” (Albinos don’t eat salt that is why they’d rather eat a certain specie of yam that needs no salt). However issues relating to salt and Albinism is a complete myth. There is no biological or medical reason to suggest that salt affects albinos in any way. In fact, not taking salt affects the health of Albinos.
The Yorubas’ in the South West Nigeria in their mythology believe that Obatala, an Orisa (god) created the Albinos. Obatala is known as Orisa–nla or agbalagba (the old one), the father of all other gods and creator of mankind.
The creation story of the Yoruba says that Obatala created human beings out of clay when he had finished moulding their forms, he would give them to Olodumare ( the almighty God) who would blow breath of life into them. One day however, Obatala went drinking and got drunk, and in that state he created the Albino. In memory of the day the worshippers of Obatala are forbidden to drink palm wine, and afflicted people like albinos, the hunchback, blind, dwarf and cripples are considered to be especially sacred to the god and are given position of some importance in the shrine.
The Albinos are regarded as his own favourite with a special place in his household which no one else can fill. According to an indigene of Ogere, a town in Ogun State (South West of Nigeria) they are regarded as Kings and therefore do not bow to other gods not even kings. Other myths in Yorubaland surrounding the birth of Albinos include the following: having sexual intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period may result in the birth of Albino, when a woman becomes pregnant as a result of sexual intercourse under the scorching sun, she is likely to give birth to Albino, and a pregnant woman who makes jest of an Albino will eventually give birth to one.
In some parts of Yoruba land, Albinos are regarded as highly spiritual people, and are bound to be treated as such; if they are being discriminated against, it is the fallout from the decline in our traditional value.
In some traditional parts of Igboland, South East geographical zone of Nigeria, Albinos have to contend with stigma and discrimination. In some areas like Okwelle in Imo State and Isiuzo in Enugu State, they were seen as bearers of bad luck and are considered demons. Often times they are abandoned at birth in the “evil forest” to die. In some other areas where they are allowed to live, they are shunned throughout their lives.
Albinism causes social problems in Nigeria because people with this condition look different from their families, peers and other members of their ethnic group. People with albinism are at risk of isolation because the condition is often misunderstood. Social stigmatisation can occur especially in our black community where race or paternity of a person with albinism may be questioned. The social challenges of albinism may affect women more than men because of our socio-cultural environment. People think they have a right to make derogatory comments about the Albinos.
To be concluded tomorrow
Adedeji, a staff of National Museum, writes from Lagos