Thursday, 4 May 2017

CAMEROON: Person With Albinisim Plays Music

The 49-year-old Mengue Etienne lives with albinism. As a young boy he was chased out of a taxi and when he turned to a police officer, he told him "albinos are evil." The experience led to his fascinating musical career.

Singer-songwriter Mengue Ondou Etienne is best known by his stage name,, Calvino. His favorite instrument is the "mvet," which is common among the Fang people of Cameroon, Gabon, Sao Tome and Equatorial Guinea.

Playing the stringed mvet also known as the harp lute, Calvino is known to thrill his audiences in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. He has been invited to play for audiences around Africa in recognition of his musical skills and his stand against the superstitious beliefs and myths meted out on people like him who are living with albinism.

As a young teenager growing up in Cameroon, Etienne was often discriminated against because of his skin color. Many people in Cameroon believe that people with albinism are "evil spirits."

Every time I boarded a taxi or bus, people would immediately disembark in protest of my presence, Etienne said.

The musician added that like other albinos, he has been abused both physically and psychologically. When he was 15, Etienne sought the protection of a police officer after a small mob surrounded him as he was boarding a cab.

Instead of helping him, the officer refused, calling him "evil." This experience angered the now 49-year-old. He chose to fight back and his weapon of choice was music and the mvet. Etienne also reached out another musician living with albinism: the legendary Malian singer songwriter, Salif Keita.

I wrote to Salif Keita requesting that we create an association for our albino brothers and sisters. He shared my idea and we started the organization SOS Albinos.

I also started mobilizing people in Cameroon under the association for the defense of the rights and interests of albinos or ASMODISSA, Etienne said.

In many African countries, powerful ethnic groups and individuals have called for the killing of people living with albinism. Some even pay for their severed body parts for ritual practices.

But Etienne's organizations successfully lobbied the government which now recognizes the difficulties they face on a daily basis and even changed existing rules in schools to be more accepting.

An albino cannot clearly see an object from afar. We have difficulties reading small characters written on a blackboard. Now the state has asked for those characters to be increased, so that albino children are able to read alongside other children in classrooms,Etienne said.

Mengue Etienne says he wants albinos to be recognized as normal human beings.

I said to myself in primary school that I won't allow my current circumstances to dictate who I am or consider myself a different person. I saw myself as a black person and a human being. In fact, it is a gift from God and we have to accept ourselves like that,said 15-year-old Collette Manga who also lives with albinism.

Perceptions are changing in Cameroon too. I was afraid of them, but not anymore," said Tamba Clementine, a tailor living in northwestern Cameroon. One of Clementine's clients is a woman living with albinism.

She is a nice person and has a good heart, Clementine said. She has become like a mother to me. We spend a lot of time together. But some people are afraid because of their skin color and the way they look.

Calvino's message is creating an impact.

His music is geared towards telling people that they are people who have equal rights in the society. They are people, who also think, act, and do things that normal human beings do.

After his successes in putting the agenda of people with albinism at the core of discussion forums in the country, Etienne now wants to expand his campaign to others.

The state carries out so many projects in the name of the poor, but in reality only government workers benefit, he said.

Etienne said that these issues will feature largely in his upcoming album.

Thando Hopa is a South African lawyer in her mid 20s. She grew up with lots of sunblock, long clothing, and complexes. She was always hiding in the shade, she says. Now Hopa is working to tackle the discrimination faced by people living with Albinism in Africa as a catwalk model.

Thando Hopa was discovered four years ago in a shopping center by South African designer Gert-Johan Coetzee, behind her in the photo. Today she's one of the best known models in South Africa. Her photo has been published in the top fashion magazines, and in 2013 she was on the cover of the first issue of Forbes Life Africa.

Many Africans believe that albinos are not living beings but ghosts, and that their body parts can bring good luck and prosperity. Actually, albinism is a genetic disorder characterized by a lack of pigmentation in the skin.

Worldwide, around one in 20,000 people is born with the disorder. Albinism is fairly widespread in East and southern Africa - just like superstition.

Criminals hunt albinos, killing and selling their bodies to traditional healers, who believe they have magical properties.

According to the UN, the body of an albino person can be worth more than 60,000 euros on the black market ($68,000). A single leg can be sold for around 2,000 euros ($2,200). Tanzania has banned unregistered traditional healers - neighboring Malawi has not.

Dorothy, from Malawi's Machinga province, says she never feels safe. Around 10,000 albinos live in the South-East African nation.

According to Amnesty International, 18 of them have been murdered in the last year and a half. Malawian police have recorded more than 60 violent attacks on albinos. It's thought many more cases go unreported.

Razik Jaffalie doesn't let his sons out of his sight. To protect three-year-old Cassim, he even had to give up his job.

Malawians are proud of their reputation as kind, peaceful people. But following the latest attacks on albinos, Malawi's president Peter Mutharika said he was ashamed by the killings in the country.

Salif Keita is one of the stars of African pop music. He was born in Mali and knows how hard it can be to grow up with albinism in Africa.

He moved to Paris in 1984, and became famous when he performed at London's Wembley Stadium on 11 June 1988,a concert for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday. Mandela was still in prison at the time.

A festival in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2015 kickstarted a small revolution. "Fièrement Ndundu" - "proud to be albino," a three day event in Kinshasa, provided a platform for people to share their experiences, challenge stereotypes and build up their self confidence. Now many Africans are making their voices heard online, for example with the Twitter hashtag #AlbinismIsJustAColor.

But albinism is not 'just' a skin color. Those with the disorder lack the skin pigment melanin, which protects the body from the sun's rays. The deficiency means albinos are at a high risk of developing skin cancer.

Many also have problems with vision, because of the lack of melanin in their eyes. For albinos, sun protection is essential.

For Said Seremani and his Team "Albino United," training sessions begin when the sun starts to set over the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam.

They only have a small, dusty pitch, but they have big dreams. The players want to become international football stars and prove that albinos can play just as well as role models like Didier Drogba or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.