Popular Theorizing on albinism and the human in Eastern Africa: Exploration of Tanzanian experience.

Presented by Benson A Mulemi

Monday, 4 September, 2017 - 15:00

Partial or complete absence of the melanin pigment in the skin, eyes, and hair shape varied cultural expressions and labels denoting albinos or persons with albinism (PWA). Popular cross-cultural references to albinism and albinos in Africa often impute perceived abnormality, disability and discredited personhood or otherness, fraught with mystical ambivalence. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Western ethnologists classified African PWA as either the lowest or genetically degenerated human variants. Classical ethnology and African folk theorising depict albinos as embodiments of personhood and spiritual ambiguity. Drawing on ethnography of albinism and affected people’s livelihood in Tanzania, this paper explores traditional African models of personhood and linguistic usages that dehumanize albinos in East Africa. Lived experiences of stigma, socio-economic exclusion of PWA and their kin are analysed as manifestations of overall livelihood vulnerability in Tanzania and beyond. Increasing visibility of albinos’ plight in Tanzania embody a re-emergence of universal cultural practices, beliefs and economies that undermine human the rights of minorities defined by congenital and associated culturally constructed disabilities and otherness. This paper pursues three arguments. First, pursuits for understanding human nature and variation underpin creative ways of knowing, which influence the wellbeing of vulnerable groups and submerge their voices. Second, indigenous African imaginations on human ontology underlie the ways of knowing and inform folk theorising about being human and human differences. Thirdly, cultural adaptation involves a universal historical tendency to create labels of otherness, defined in exclusive superior-inferior categories and justify discrimination. In this regard, culture policy to safeguard the rights of persons with biological traits associated with actual or perceived functional and psychic (dis-)abilities in East Africa and beyond is imperative.

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