Albinism is a very rare genetic condition that affects roughly one in 17,000 people worldwide. People who have this condition are commonly known as “albinos.” Albinos are easily recognizable due to the way albinism affects their appearance, making their skin extremely pale and their eyes often appear reddish. Albinism has been documented for centuries, and before modern medicine defined its cause, there were many myths and superstitions in different cultures surrounding these people due to their differences. Some of these legends persist today and affect the lives of modern albinos, increasing the persecution often faced by any people groups that fall outside of “normal.”
Albinism: Causes, Effects, And Management
While human albinism is our central focus, many species do have albinos. There have been reported cases of albino alligators, mice, kookaburras, catfish, etc. This is due to albinism having a relatively vague definition and a wide range of causes across different species of animals and even some plants. The medical definition of albinism is a “congenital absence of any pigmentation or coloration in a person, animal or plant, resulting in white hair, feathers, scales and skin and pink eyes in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish and other small invertebrates as well.”
In humans, there are two types of albinism: ocular and oculocutaneous. Ocular albinism affects only a person’s eyes, while oculocutaneous albinism affects not only the eyes but skin and hair as well. In either case, albinism results in the lack of melanin (the only pigment a human being has) in the affected area. In people with ocular albinism, this results in reddish colored eyes due to the lack of melanin in the requisite quantities to result in other eye colors. Oculocutaneous albinism not only gives a person red or pink eyes, but it also makes their skin extremely pale and results in pure-white hair, as melanin is responsible for darkening skin and coloring hair.
The lack of melanin results in problems beyond looking different, especially to the eyes, which are dependent upon melanin to develop correctly. Because of this, albinos suffer from a prevalence of visual conditions, including photophobia, amblyopia, nystagmus, and optic nerve hypoplasia. Albinos are also more likely than people without this condition to suffer from skin cancers, as melanin in the skin blocks ultraviolet rays.
Albinism has no cure, but many of the symptoms are manageable. Protection from the sun is relatively uncomplicated; albinos simply take more extreme versions of measures many people take: wearing non-revealing clothing, not going out on sunny days, etc. The visual problems are also often manageable with corrective surgery or glasses/contact lenses. While these physical symptoms may be managed, the reactions of other people to albinos is far harder to control.
Prevalence And Persecution
While albinism occurs in all populations around the globe, some areas do have a greater prevalence than others. Across the United States and Europe, rates for albinism are generally about one in 20,000, while in certain areas of Southern Africa rates as high as one in 1,000 have been documented. This is due to the genetic factors that lead to albinism in human beings becoming more concentrated as it is passed down among smaller populations, such as African tribes. Particular ethnic groups also have heightened susceptibility to albinism.
There have been superstitions about albinos across the world since the first person with albinism was born in each area. However, the places where albinos are more prevalent have the most myths about them and have often persecuted albinos the harshest. In the African Great Lakes region, myths of Malawi culture have been created and perpetuated about certain body parts of albino people being useful in magical potions. This has led not only to persecution but the hunting and killing of albinos. These myths and practices still persist today, sadly. Other areas of sub-Saharan Africa also have a long history of the persecution of albinos.
Albinos Against The Myths
The persecution of any people group is easiest when those people are largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. To stop persecution it needs to be brought to light and that requires members of the persecuted population becoming known to people across the globe. Albinism is rare enough that while most people may vaguely know of the condition, they have never seen or even heard of an actual albino individual. This is changing, however, as several albinos are now stepping onto the world stage, making them impossible to miss.
Thando Hapo made history this year as the first albino model to make the front page of a Vogue magazine. Vogue Portugal put the elegant South African model on their issue of the famous world-wide magazine, making history and taking a step towards greater recognition for albinos everywhere. Hapo maintains an Instagram account and shared there her excitement at the great opportunity given to her. She wrote, “I once said to a close friend that it would really be lovely to see a woman with albinism on a Vogue cover, I would not have imagined that that woman would be me.”
In the United States, another albino woman is becoming known for her beauty and intelligence as well. Krystal Robertson lives in a small town in Missouri. Robertson has become known as something of a makeup expert for albinos, testing and reviewing products and recommending particular brands and products to other people with albinism. While never having faced violent persecution, Robertson does have some stories of being made fun of for the way she looks.
Lazarus Chigwandali comes from the Malawi tribe, perhaps the worst place an albino could grow up. Grow up he did, however, and now he is becoming a famous musician, using his songs to challenge the myths about people like him and raising awareness. Lazarus’ first-hand experiences with persecution have given him a perspective the world needs to hear and Lazarus says that he will keep making music until people lose their superstitions about people like him.