I don’t really know why, but today I had a strange thought, Huh… Haven’t seen any albinos in a while. How odd. I’m sure most of you reading this are thinking to yourselves, Wow. That’s one ODD thought. Agreed. Albinos were part of my normal daily life in Africa. And of all the observations from my African travels, this was not one which I thought would resonate and stay with me when I returned.
I’m not sure I ever saw an albino in real life before I moved to Africa. But in Africa, since most countries have a population which is over 90% black, albinism is quite common. There are several reasons for this but inbreeding is considered one of the primary causes. Aside from the cities, most people in Africa live in villages. The large majority of people will live in those villages their entire lives- unless of course they attempt to migrate to the cities for work, which is happening more frequently. However, those that do remain in the villages will likely marry someone from their own village, or a neighboring village. When you only have 200 people in a village, your options are limited, meaning there is a high likelihood you will marry a cousin. By the way, this also tends to happen in bush Alaska. This is why many states require you to get a blood test before you get married because if you procreate with a relative there are likely to be health problems for the resulting offspring. In Africa, the most common health issue associated with marrying your relative and producing children is albinism.
Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, with one in every 1,300 people having the condition. This may not sound like a lot, but I will say from experience I saw at least one, sometimes many, albinos every single day that I was in Africa. Some areas are more sensitive to albinism than others and some places are incredibly adverse to it, often hunting albinos down and killing them as you would game animals. Many albinos are referred to as ghosts due to their light features and are often believed to have magical powers. This is especially important when it comes to witchcraft which is prevalent throughout the continent. People go to witch doctors for all kinds of things: infertility, help in finding a mate, premature baldness, and one of my personal favorites, wanting to put a curse on an enemy. No, I didn’t put a curse on anyone… or did I? (insert evil laugh here)
When you go to a witch doctor- I was a witness, NOT a participant- you are given a prescription for how to solve your problem. It’s kind of like a Catholic going to confession: 5 Hail Marys, 5 Our Fathers, etc. etc. But our visit to the witch doctor resulted in, “Bring me the pinkie finger of an albino and a pint of goat’s blood.” WHAT?!?!?! No joke! And for the record, I did not return for the follow-up visit, I didn’t want to be an accessory to the albino pinkie crime.
The ghost association makes many people afraid of albinos because no one wants to interact with the dead. At the same time, some cultures think albinos have special powers; hence the reason for incorporating body parts from, or in some instances, a human sacrifice of an albino. But regardless of these two beliefs there is the theory that albinos never die. And very often that is true. You never find a dead albino; instead they simply “disappear” because they have been hunted down and their body discarded. There is also a black market for albino body parts. Basically if you “need” an albino pinkie you can go to a dealer and pay him, sometimes thousands of dollars to “harvest” the necessary part. More than once I’ve overheard comments made about albinos to the effect of, “There’s my next fortune walking down the side of the road.”
The average life expectancy of an albino living in Africa is 30 years, due in part to what I described above, but also because they are so susceptible to skin cancer, even more so than a white person. In Tanzania fewer than 2% of albinos make it to 40.
So as I was telling you, I haven’t seen an albino in quite a while. But I think that has more to do with the fact there just aren’t that many of them here in the U.S., not that we are hunting these mysterious ghosts for medicinal purposes. Someone asked me today what the biggest shock was about my time in Africa. After reflecting upon it I would have to say my visit to the witch doctor would rank among the top five.