As international and local media reminded everyone last week, being an albino in certain parts of East and Central Africa is detrimental to one’s prospects of a long life.
Any such tragedy befalling a Botswana albino only occurs within the context of an off-colour political joke between Botswana Democratic Party and Umbrella for Democratic Change activists. However, there is context within which to wonder whether Batswana ever harvested albinos body parts for use as muti potions. The source of such speculation is from the Setswana saying that an albino person doesn’t die but just disappears: leswafe ga le swe le a nyelela. In Africa people disappear in two distinct ways: like ghosts do or like enemies of the state do in fully-fledged autocracies. Albinos were supposed to vanish via the former but it could well have been the latter.
In their journey down south, Batswana in lived in Central Africa for some 300 years and it is reasonable to speculate that they might possibly have picked up some murderous habits peculiar to that region. If they did, they would also have had to craft theories to cover the crime. Whatever may or may not have happened, Botswana albinos don’t have to worry about anyone kidnapping them and selling them for body parts. That notwithstanding, there remains the question of what the origins of leswafe ga le swe le a nyelela are.
Kgosikwena Sebele, who has worked as Bakwena regent and President of the Customary Court of Appeal, is deeply knowledgeable about Setswana culture. However, even he disavows knowledge of how this saying/belief came into being. The theory he hazards is that while Batswana may not have engaged in albino ritual killings, they were possibly some among them who kidnapped albinos and sold them to places where it is believed that their bodies make potent muti potions.
“But that is just a wild theory. I can’t say I know how that saying came about,” Sebele says.
Professor Thapelo Otlogetswe, an associate professor of linguistics and lexicography at the University of Botswana, appreciates this issue differently.
“Albinism is a pigmentation disorder and like all disorders, it is clouded in secrecy and taboos. Batswana have for many years killed children with disorders during birth. This includes children missing limbs, twins and those with albinism. Since traditional people lacked the scientific know-how and precision to account for albinism, they seized on the cultural, and saw albinism as a bad omen ÔÇôbotlhodi,” he says.
Otlogetswe ties the origin of the Setswana belief about albino to the fact that it was rare to find them in many communities because they were killed at birth.
“Because they were rare, it was rare for anybody to remember a funeral of an albino. Additionally, many albinos lived on the margins of the society. Many were not taken to school. Some lived and died in the cattleposts and were subsequently buried there. They were people who were not people; they were the visible but forgotten ones. They were de facto Ralph Ellison’s visible invisible men. They did not marry (or get married), they rarely owned property, were not leaders, they were seen as sick and therefore kept away from others. They were perceived as society’s lepers. People didn’t want to share a seat, food or even a bed with them,” says Otlogetswe who in 2012, published what remains the largest monolingual Setswana dictionary.
A lot has changed since then and in present-day Botswana, albinos find greater acceptability. With specific regard to the recent past, Otlogetswe singles out former Radio Botswana presenter, Godiramang Makhaya, who died in 2006 at the age of 45, as the person who helped change many Batswana’s ideas about albinism.
“In a career that spanned over two decades, weekly he played some of the most soothing religious music pieces to the nation. He was a motivational speaker. He spoke of God’s love and demonstrated that God’s love to humanity was without discrimination,” says Otlogetswe adding that “even during his death, [Makhaya] changed many people’s ideas about albinism as hundreds came to his funeral in Thamaga to witness that albinos don’t vanish; like everybody else they die and get buried.”