Albinism – taming/condemning otherness

The notion of otherness – i.e. something foreign – functions in almost every culture, often synonymous with evil, and is burdened with negative connotations and responsibility for what the members of a given community experience (disease, poverty, conflicts, acts of violence). Forms of otherness may vary, and similarly to black skin colour being condemned for centuries, many Asian cultures (also in black-skinned societies), one of the reasons for discrimination is albinism (a genetically determined condition involving a disturbance in skin pigmentation).
It is also interesting that in the case of animals, albinism is perceived positively. In Burma, the appearance of a white elephant (in fact its colour is light brown) is considered as a good omen. The authorities of this country, when making strategic decisions that could cause civil unrest, send their soldiers to the jungle to look for a white elephant. The presence of a “good sign” legitimizes their actions, and the animal is kept in captivity in case it is needed again for political purposes.
While white-furred animals promise a change for the better, the lack of melanin in the human body has legitimized acts of repression for centuries – to this day, many African communities are convinced that the appearance of an albino brings misfortune. Such opinions have become the source of brutal murders and hunts for albinos – e.g. in Tanzania. Women with abnormal pigmentation, and with red eyes, were accused of witchcraft. Behind the murders of both adults and children, carried out by organized gangs, stand mainly shamans and healers (due to poverty and difficult access to healthcare their position is still very strong) who use blood and body parts of albinos for magical rituals as well as traders who produce various types of amulets.
Though it sounds dramatic, a living albino is a source of evil, but a fragment of his tormented body becomes a talisman that guarantees health, wealth, and prosperity. Fishermen on Lake Victoria will weave albino hair into their nets, counting on their magical power and ensuring an abundant catch. In many cases, tombs of albinos are also profaned. To prevent these acts, they are usually flooded with concrete.
The Tanzanian authorities, alerted by the international community, have attempted to stabilize this situation by developing a protection program and running a general censuses for albinos (although there are still cases of violent murders and violations of human rights). In 2008, the UN became involved in this case by issuing a resolution condemning the wave of killings and acts of repression against this group.
In the same year, Al-Shaymaa Kwegyir   (an albino activist involved in defending the rights of people affected by albinism and helping the victims of mutilations) was elected to the Tanzanian parliament.

Elaborated by Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums,
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 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

See The Albino magpie in the collection of the Krystyna and Włodzimierz Tomek Natural Science Museum in Ciężkowice.