He was barely one year old when his parents neglected him and parted ways after a serious fight, simply because he was an albino, a rare breed that was contrary to what they had both expected.
Forty years after, Mr. Abdullahi Obafemi, has yet to recover from the painful knowledge that his parents abandoned him. They tossed him between each other until his grandmother, who was living in northern Nigeria, took over his custody.
Obafemi is still haunted by his history, the humiliation and rejection he continues to suffer from the public daily.
“I am my parents’ only child. I learnt their marriage ended abruptly the moment my mother gave birth to me as an albino. In fact, I learnt my mother screamed, Eh! Afin ni mo bi (Ha, I gave birth to an albino) when she saw me.
“While they were busy denying me and fighting over who would take care of me, my grandmother took me away from them,” Obafemi said with a note of sadness.
Growing up was also not easy for Obafemi as he helplessly endured the constant discrimination meted against people like him.
Although albinos are no strange beings as they only lack the pigment that gives colouration to the skin and body parts, called melanin, they are usually discriminated against.
Apart from their skin and brown hair, many albinos suffer from short sight vision, thus, they usually have challenge with seeing objects, whether far or near.
Obafemi recalled his tough experience in school. His bad sight affected his learning in school even when he sat in front of the class.
He said, “I wasn’t seeing things clearly and I couldn’t afford to buy reading glasses. I had to rely on my classmates so I could copy from their notes but they often treated me with disdain. Nobody wanted to move close to an albino.
“Thank God I was brilliant, it was when they saw that I was very good that they came close to me, not because they liked me but they knew I would always solve questions for them so they could pass.”
Despite the resilience and hard work that saw Obafemi through school, getting a good job has remained an elusive desire. He was rejected, abused and humiliated everywhere he looked for job because of his albinism.
Obafemi studied Building Technology at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos.
“The pains, humiliation and rejection I went through before I could graduate are things I don’t like to remember. It is now more painful that nobody wants to employ me because of my skin and some employers even make jest of me.
“There was a time I applied for a job, and having seen my application, I was invited to write a test. When I got there, one of the interview panel members said, ‘So you are an albino, don’t worry; we will invite you some other time.’
“When I later got a job as a civil servant, I had to learn painting to augment my meagre income and even when people want to give me job, some people would say I wouldn’t see very well because of my eyes. They say I would paint green instead of blue. I lost many jobs because of that too but I got few on compassionate grounds.
“There was a day I went to apply for a security job, I was asked by the company officials how I would see people coming in and I told them I was not blind. But they told me that I was the one who needed security instead, not for me to be a security man.”
Obafemi has had to combat rejection in many ways, including relationship with women.
“Thankfully, I have a nine-year-old son now, who is not an albino, but the family of his mother didn’t allow me to marry her because I was an albino and they said I wasn’t rich enough. However, I am happy I have one already, but I wish I was not an albino, because life would have been easier for me, like others,” he added.
Obafemi’s situation underscores the challenge being faced by people affected by albinism. Inasmuch as they are also humans, many of them have dreams of what to become in life but a number of them have had their hope of a better life replaced by frustration and utter dislike for themselves.
Tola Banjoko is another albino. She suffers from bad sight, and that alone has cost her the desire to go to school as she had to drop out of school.
Born into a family of 10, and as the only albino in the family, life dealt cruelly with her. She told Saturday Punch that not even the idea of sitting in front of the class would help her situation and since her mother could not buy the recommended glasses to aid her vision, she had to stop going to school and opted to run a kiosk.
She said, “When I complained to my mother that I didn’t see things on the board, she didn’t really know what to do. My mother went to plead with my teacher to allow me to sit in front but that didn’t solve the problem.
“I was able to finish primary school because one of my teachers would sit beside me and read the questions to me during exams, but there was no such help when I got to a public secondary school that my parents could afford.
“In JSS1, one of my teachers would always tell me to go and sit at the back because she said I was too tall to sit in front. Even when I tried to explain why I needed to sit there, she wouldn’t listen. And my own sight was so bad that I could put number one in two sometimes. When I became so disturbed about everything, I stopped schooling, more so that I couldn’t afford the pair of glasses that would have aided my sight.”
Banjoko told Saturday PUNCH that after she dropped out of school, her skin began to change for the worst when she had to defy the golden rule for albinos not to roam in the sun, to look for a job until she couldn’t get any and had to settle for running a small kiosk on the street where she earns a living.
“While I was going out to look for job, it was like fire was burning my skin each time I was in the sun until I was forced to start selling things. I still want to go to school and I don’t want to lose hope, but I feel very bad that I am an albino because my education has suffered for it and that is a huge loss for me. I wish I was not an albino but what can I do?” she lamented.
Lamentation, a shared currency
While Banjoko had to drop out of school because of her sight, Chiamaka Chikwem, 26, managed to go to school but has not had much to show for it, even though she finished with a Second Class Upper Division.
She told Saturday PUNCH that she feels so unlucky and unfortunate being an albino because of the disappointments, marginalisation and discrimination she has had to live with.
Chikwem, a graduate of Microbiology from Michael Okpara University, Umudike, Abia State lamented that she had been so frustrated to the extent of considering suicide when it seemed the doors of favour had been shut against her.
“Even when I know I am qualified for a job, I don’t get it and some even say it to my face that an albino cannot do their kind of work. Albinism does not affect our intelligence, we are not blind, it is just the skin colour and our sight. I believe in myself and I know I will make it because I won’t give up,” she lamented.
I will never marry an albino
Chikwem said even though God created her for a purpose, she would never marry a fellow albino. She said, “I feel unlucky and unfortunate being an albino and I will never marry an albino or someone with the gene because that would be double tragedy. It is not because there is something wrong with albinos, I am an albino, but the discrimination has made it a problem.
“I am at the moment an office secretary somewhere and I do another free job because some don’t even want me in the first place, so I forced myself to be there so I could be actively engaged even if I am not being paid. I like to practise what I studied, but nobody wants to give albinos a chance. But I won’t stop searching in spite of the frustration.
“If I struggled to go to school with my short sightedness and graduated with a Second Class Upper division and I still do not get a job because of my colour, that is not a thing of joy. I am sad. Now I want to do my Master’s programme if that would help, but I don’t have the money.”
As she continues to look for job, Chikwem is not thinking about being in a relationship even at 26, because she rarely gets passes from men. She said, “That I’m an albino may be a factor, but I don’t want to think that way. I don’t even like to think about it so that it doesn’t compound my problem, and the reason why you don’t see many albinos at the top is because of the adversities that we face. Those who are not strong-willed tend to lose hope and withdraw their efforts.
“I once considered suicide when the adversities and rejection became so severe; but I chose to face it headlong. When one is pushed beyond some limit, a reaction like suicide could flash through the mind.”
Forty-three-year-old Lukman Desmond is one of the over six million people living with albinism in Nigeria. Currently unemployed, his dream was to be an officer in the military but he has since let go of that dream due to his albinism. He said he didn’t bother to obtain the form because he knew he would not be considered.
Lukman is trying to manage his fears that his Ordinary Level qualification may not take him anywhere in the midst of over 20 million black-skinned Nigerian youths that are currently unemployed, with the country’s 24 per cent unemployment rate.
He said, “Presently, I have O’ level and I have been looking for a job to support myself to further my education but I have been turned down everywhere I go, even if it is a menial job. It’s frustrating. My father does not have enough to support me to study to a higher level, so I want to help myself and supplement whatever they give to me but people don’t want to employ an albino.
“Because of the rejections here and there, I do ask myself if they don’t want us to live. Even women discriminate against us. By the time you don’t have a job, everybody avoids you and nothing seems to be working in your favour, what is there to live for.”
“At 44 now, I don’t have a girlfriend because they don’t want to come close to me. I was dating a lady sometime ago, but the moment the mother saw me, the instant disapproval on her face was too obvious that I didn’t even wait for her to say it. But I will keep trying until I have a job and married.
Apart from those who were born as albinos, another thing that seems to have torn some families apart is albinism. For the dearth of an accurate way of ascertaining who has the albinism gene, it appears Mrs. Linda Mustapha would have others to tell her own kind of bitter story.
Mustapha was barely 16 when she was forced into marriage with a man she had never met by a relative, shortly after her grandfather who had been her guardian.
As a young girl bubbling with life and strong desire for education, all her dreams of a better future soon hit the rocks, an experience that replaced her once joyous life with one full of regrets and frustration, when she married without her consent, to a man that was 15 years older than her.
Fair skinned and very beautiful, when she got to Lagos from the village, and was slowly reconciling herself with the trauma that had flooded her small world, she committed the unexpected crime: She gave birth to albinos — a phenomenon that runs contrary to the culture in her husband’s village.
She had hope of continuing her education someday even though the possibility was not very bright initially when she had her first son, a male with black complexion, but when the second and third children came and they were albinos, hell was let loose by the husband’s family, who not only made sure she was divorced, but also subjected the children to utter discomfort and trouble.
Mustapha recalled that she never knew what love or relationship meant before the arranged marriage, and even when she followed the husband to Lagos, but that life became hellish when she had the two albinos. Since then, she has been enduring a torturous life of abject poverty.
Her case fits in perfectly into the common rhetoric, ‘When the fruit of the womb becomes a disadvantage.’
She said, “I was 10 when I lost my mum and my dad died when I was 14. I was about registering for junior WASSCE when my grandfather died and that is why I don’t have my Junior School Certificate till date because I wrote the exam on credit. Instead of these relatives to help with my exam fees, they were in a hurry to give me out in marriage, and they did.”
She disclosed that to prove how desperate her larger family members were to get rid of her, when her husband could not pay the N600 dowry, someone in her family lent him the money!
She said, “There was no love between us, he never proposed to me and I never knew him. I was a virgin when I was given to him and I never knew anything about sex or relationship before then, so the pains I went through still haunt me till today.
“He handled me as if I was inconsequential, while I became pregnant a year after we arrived Lagos. I was only 17. I wanted to go to school, but he deceived me and told me that I would be kidnapped if I did, and because of the magnitude of the fear he had implanted in me, I could not summon enough courage to run away. I wish I had, even if I was going to die, because now I live in regret and poverty.”
Her marital problems assumed a terrifying dimension when she gave birth to two albinos—a boy and a girl, as the situation pitched her against her husband’s extended family. Even her husband could not forgive her for these births. Eventually, she was sent packing and told never return to the man.
“They told me that it was forbidden to have an albino in their tradition, and when I had mine, his family members accused me of bringing an albino, a forbidden genre of people in their culture, to their home.
Mustapha’s experience underscores the evils of child marriage and its attendant implications. As a fair skinned beautiful lady, she recalled that the husband would come to where she was selling some things to beat and embarrass her, and even accuse her of sleeping around even when she was almost enslaved and was not allowed to go out at will.
“Eventually, he threw my things out, he didn’t allow me to sleep in the house, and I had to sleep in the kitchen every night. As if that was not enough, he locked me out and took the children to his village where his family members made him swear to an oath that he would never allow me to step into his house again. When he was returning to Lagos, they organised another woman for him. The woman left when she couldn’t cope with his attitude.
“My husband threatened to bathe me with acid if he sees me around, all because I gave birth to albinos.”
Life of regrets
Now 37, Mustapha’s torturous experience has shaped her life and confined her into a corner of abundant regrets. Having been out of job for a long time and residing in a church somewhere in Apapa area of Lagos State, she struggles to get money to feed herself, her three children and the husband, who is now sick, on a weekly basis.
Having been at the mercy of friends and relatives since she lost her job as a cleaner, she is currently living from hands to mouth to feed the family of five and buy the necessary protective items for her albino children.
“The children are with him because I don’t have a house. I sleep in a church at the moment. I only go to see them on weekends to give them food that can last them for a week.
“I am not an albino. I didn’t grow up to see any albino in my family, we are only fair skinned, which is not even close to albinism, but they have an albino in their lineage. They have shifted the entire blame on me. I wish my parents didn’t die that early, because all these wouldn’t have happened if they had been alive.”
She said at a point, her in-laws even transferred the anger they felt towards her to her children.
“On a particular occasion after I was sent out of the house leaving my children behind, my husband’s sister came around. One day, she dipped my first son’s buttocks in hot water because they accused him of stealing a belt, leaving his buttocks severely burnt. When he managed to call me and I got there, I took off his trousers to see the extent of the damage. What I saw was shocking! My son’s flesh was gummed to the trousers and it peeled as I tried to remove the trousers. I had to take him to the hospital where the trousers were removed.
“As if that was not enough, the woman also gave pepper and hot water to my first albino child to swallow, and stood on him, all in a bid to torment him. I regret everything that has happened to me. I would have been able to escape if not for my children but now I’m stuck, all because I gave birth to albinos.
It’s not all gloom for the albinos
The coordinator of the albino group in Lagos State, Mrs. Josephine Yejide, who is also a nurse, said it is important for people to know that albinism deals with gene and that it goes beyond facial calculation.
She recalled that she had always lived a freedom-spiced life as a young woman and that she never allowed anybody to look down on her, which was why she was able to make progress in her education and career.
She said even though she had male friends who liked her and wanted her for a relationship, they would always run away when it was time to discuss about marriage or meet with their parents.
She said, “I never entertained inferiority complex and I mixed with everybody, attended parties and even joined the Kegites Club in school, and I was committed to my work, so there was no way anybody would malign me. I always dress well because I understand the perception of people about my skin colour, so if I dress well, people would respect me. There is already a minus for us, so looking bad makes it worse.”
While clarifying some of the controversies trailing albinism, she said contrary to the idea that only an albino could give birth to an albino child, two people with black skin who are carriers of the gene would likely have an albino child. She added that if an albino marries someone who is not an albino and does not have the gene at all, they will not have albino as a child.
She said, “I am an albino but my husband is dark and my children are not albinos because my husband does not have the gene. They are only fair and their fair complexion is not excessive. It is not about being fair, it is about being a carrier of the gene.
“We tell parents of albinos to go to the children’s school and talk to the teachers to enable the albino child to sit infront of the class and we encourage albinos who are students to study twice as much as others because of their sight.”
Josephine added that living with albinism could be very challenging but the main challenges lie with their skin and sight.
Another albino, Dr. Douglas Anele, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos, is one of the albinos who have carved a niche for themselves. He is a prolific writer, with many of his scholarly works published in international journals.
How albinos are treated across the world
Albinism is said to affect about one in every 20,000 people across the world and this population is distributed across some countries. In China, the world most populous country, one out of every 18,000 people is affected, out of its over 1.3 billion people. In the United States, one out of every 37,000 people is affected, out of its over 319 million people. Also, in the United Kingdom, one of every 17,000 people is said to be affected, out of its over 64 million people.
With over six million albinos in Nigeria, the country is rated to have one of the highest albinism prevalent rates in the world while children constitute about 40 per cent of the population. In many African countries with black people like Nigeria, anyone with a deviant colour stands to be treated as an outcast.
While albinism has been proven to be a genetic condition caused by the absent of melanin in the skin of those affected, many African children are at the risk of deep rejection, discrimination and even death, the latter being occasioned by the myth that they have potency for black magic ritual, fortune, wealth and good health.