The perils of being white in Fiji
Not long after arriving in Suva, I was waiting at a crowded bus stop, idly watching chattering school kids in their colourful uniforms. Loud laughs drew my eye to a group of teenage boys playing with a rugby ball around and between the buses, ignoring the angry shouts of the drivers.. All over the world, boys will be boys! But one stood out because his skin was white. I saw in a second he was albino: his features were Fijian, his white hair was tightly crinkled.
When the boys eventually obeyed the bus drivers and settled down near me, I winced at the albino boy's sore-looking skin, marked by inflamed lesions and weeping scabs. He almost closed his red-rimmed eyes against the glare as he joked with his mates.
After six months in Suva, I realised I came across albinos there far more frequently than I had in Australia. My husband and I decided this was because, where the skin colour of nearly all the population ranges from light brown to dark brown, they were simply more noticeable. Recently I found out this hypothesis was wrong.
Facts about albinism
Melanin protects the skin from the sun as well as providing colouring. Albinism is a rare congenital condition, a result of both parents having a recessive melanin-blocking gene. Each child of parents with this gene has a 25 per cent chance of being born albino, which means they produce no melanin. As a consequence, they lack pigment in their skin, hair and eyes and also suffer from poor vision, but otherwise enjoy normal health.
Albinism occurs all over the world, in all racial groups, but the incidence varies dramatically. For example, in Australia, the frequency is one in 20,000, but in Fiji it is one in 700, similar to parts of Africa. Worldwide, there are many more albinos in hot climates, where the intense rays of the sun inflict terrible skin damage. In the tropics, people with albinism frequently die from skin cancer before the age of forty.
International Albinism Awareness Day - June 13th
However, it was not the dangers of skin cancer that prompted the United Nations (UN) to institute this annual day in 2015. Instead, it was the cruel treatment of albinos in some countries fuelled by prejudice, including the superstition that albinos are not human. but magical. Their lives are blighted in parts of Africa by constant threat of attack, kidnapping and murder for their body parts which many believe can confer magical benefits. In Tanzania, where the median annual income is less than $600, bodies of albinos have reportedly been sold for $75,000. The UN Human Rights Council in 2013 resolved to combat this abhorrent and increasing persecution by publicising the facts about albinism.
Fiji Albinism Project (FAP)
Fiji followed up on the UN initiative in 2015 by setting up FAP to foster positive public attitudes towards albinos and to provide practical help with skin care and vision problems. The founder was Dr Margot Whitfield, an Australian dermatologist. Let me hasten to say that in Fiji, albinos are not persecuted, but some social stigma exists simply because they look different from others. There is also a mistaken belief that children with albinism are not intelligent, because their poor vision often leads to poor school achievement. Thus, they are likely to work outdoors as labourers - jobs that may prove fatal to them.
The project teaches parents of albino children how to protect their children's skin and shows teachers of albino children how to compensate for their poor vision by allowing them to sit wherever they choose in the classroom. The government has committed to providing children with school materials in large fonts, glasses and sunglasses. If albino children succeed at school and qualify for indoor jobs, they will be healthier and safer.
This video is the official trailer for a documentary on albinism in Fiji made by Christine Nestel. I couldn't find the full documentary, but you may be a better internet sleuth.
Fiji is first!
This year, Fiji became the first nation in the world to supply sunscreen free of charge to its citizens with albinism. This is a first of which the Fiji government can be proud. Let's hope others will follow their lead to help end the perils that a boy at a Suva bus stop brought to my attention many years ago.
Finally, I hope you may enjoy this performance of Lean on Me, by Fijian-Australian singer Voli K (of The Voice fame) and his sister Laisa. They both have albinism. Here's the link.
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