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Published on Sunday, November 4, 2018

Superstitions still harm people

Every now and then, I run across news reports that make me feel sick. (No, I’m not referring to Donald Trump.)

            Last summer, I read a report from Malawi, in Africa. You may not have heard much about Malawi. It always ranks near the bottom on Africa’s poverty scales, for a variety of reasons.

            First, because Malawi is land-locked. It has no seaports, no way to access world markets except through other countries.

            Second, because it has nothing to market. Malawi has no oil, no minerals, and barely enough agriculture to support its own 20 million population -- in one-tenth the land area of British Columbia. It has lots of fresh water -- Lake Malawi is second only to Lake Victoria among African lakes -- but water is not exportable.

            But Malawi does, apparently, have something that people in other parts of Africa covet -- albino babies.

            By some genetic quirk, it seems, Malawi and its nearest neighbours to the north and south, Tanzania and Mozambique, have a higher-than-usual proportion of albino babies. That is, black babies with white skin.


Whiteness as “virtue”

            In most of the world, white skin -- or at least a lighter skin -- is a social advantage.

            In India and the Middle East, the ruling elite almost always have lighter skins than their subjects.

            In America, skin colour becomes an icon of “purity” for conservative causes. The U.S. Congress is predominantly white and male. So are most police forces. So are top-floor corporate boardrooms. Far-right extremists target anyone who is not white (according to their own definitions), shooting, bombing, and vandalizing Muslims, Jews, and blacks indiscriminately.

            Also gays and Democrats, admittedly -- who are also beyond the pale.

            Only in some African countries does the darkness of one’s skin offer a political benefit.

            Which leads to the anomaly -- in Malawi, albino babies are prized.

            For -- brace yourself -- their body parts.

            In a 2016 report, Amnesty International stated that people with albinism were “hunted and killed like animals” for their body parts. Just as poachers slaughter elephants for their tusks, and rhinos for their horns, attackers abduct and murder albino children to chop off their limbs and pluck out their organs to sell to witchdoctors.

            Are you feeling sick yet?

            Even the victim’s bones, Amnesty reported, are sold to practitioners of traditional medicine for charms and magical potions associated with wealth and good luck. Something like a rabbit’s foot, among western societies. (Which does not, as a child once observed, bring good luck to the rabbit.)


Victims of their genes

            Albinism is a genetic condition. It cannot be blamed on anything its victims did, or did not do. A particular combination of the parents’ genes leads to little or no pigment in the eyes, skin, and hair.

            Albinism occurs all over the world. In the U.S., it affects about one in 20,000 people.But Tanzania and Malawi the ratio can rise as high as one in 1,500 -- about 13 times higher.

            Malawi alone has about 10,000 residents with albinism. Because of lingering superstition, they live in fear. Many albino children do not dare going to school because they risk death and dismemberment. Mothers who send their children to school, believing that education is the only cure for historic superstitions, gamble daily with their children’s lives.

            In 2016, Malawi’s government passed a law to tackle an increase in killings of albino persons in the country. The Revised Anatomy Act created new offenses and tougher penalties.

            But despite this legislation, Amnesty states that people with albinism were still being killed for their body parts. A United Nations report went to far as to claim that albino persons were “facing extinction.”


Relics of ignorance

            Don’t blame this situation on “backward” African nations. Halloween, earlier this week, should remind us that we still have our own share of superstitions, from black cats to ghouls and ghosties, carried over from ancient civilizations.

            When we humans had no other adequate explanations for tragedy and disease, we blamed misfortunes on utterly unrelated factors. Like black cats, and cracks in sidewalks.

            And, we reasoned, if there were malevolent elements in nature, then surely there must be beneficial elements too, that brought good luck. Or just better sex.

            It is time we recognized that body parts -- whether from albino children or rhinoceros horns -- have no intrinsic powers whatsoever. They are an outdated relic of pre-historic fears, shared, as far as we know, by no other species on earth. 

            It’s time we named superstitions for the nonsense they are, and got rid of them.


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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In last week’s column, I compared the mass march of 5,000 (or may 7,000, but who’s counting?) Honduran refugees towards the U.S. border to the biblical Exodus. 

            “Bad analogy,” wrote Steve Roney. “It makes the Americans the Canaanites, and you might recall that, once they crossed the border, the Hebrews were not exemplary at assimilating. Seems to justify Trump in calling it a national emergency.

            “You also make the point that these are simply economic migrants: ‘ordinary people, hoping for a better life.’ But on this basis, there are no grounds to grant them refugee status or U.S. residency. There are probably about 6.5 billion people in this world who would love to move to the U.S. for the sake of a better life. I am surrounded by 100 million Filipinos who all dream of emigrating to the U.S. or Canada. So why should this group of Hondurans be given special preference? Because they broke the rules? If it is on the basis of poverty, there are dozens of countries poorer than Honduras. And if it is on the basis of poverty, how can you, as a Canadian, condemn the U.S. when Canada deliberately cherry-picks the rich as immigrants?”


Isabel Gibson also questioned my support for the refugees: “I agree with your general point that we will continue to see attempts at mass migration, caused by economic disparities and political instability.

            “But I'm curious. Do you think the USA should open its borders completely? (I'm assuming that the answer for the southern border would apply to the entire border, all 50 States, and all forms of ingress: air, land, sea.) If not completely, then what line would you suggest they draw? Would you have them screen only for security risks, and ask them to admit every economic/political migrant? Or do you see a process- or a numbers-driven approach to immigration?

            “As for Canada, in large part we are sheltered from this storm by the USA and by three oceans. What would you have us do now, at our own borders? And would your answer change if the USA instituted an open border?

            JT: As I replied to Isabel, I have no answers. I’m moved by sympathy, not solutions. I have to take as my overriding principle, “Treat others as you would want them to treat you.” If I were poor, frightened, I would want to be welcomed and helped, not turned away with massed armies. 


Sylvia McTavish put a personal angle on the story: “I have had a ‘foster child’ in Honduras for 14 years. The latest picture of her is on my fridge, and she has been a part of my family since she was a baby. I know she goes to school and her dream is to be a doctor; I am happy to know she can read and write and trust that she can continue with school and not be pushed into an early marriage. 

            “I have been criticized for sponsoring children in foreign countries while Canadians are in want, and sometimes I wonder if I have helped or hindered. Over the years I have fostered over 20 children and had the privilege to meet a boy in Kenya who was able to train in a trade that benefitted the family. I wonder about the beautiful boy in Sudan, and the bright one in Egypt, the little girl in Togo, and the boy in Thailand who lost both his parents when I was his sponsor. I have pictures and letters -- and memories. My boy in Burkina Faso was too far from a school so never learned to read or write, but he had an inquisitive mind and asked questions about so many things and I have always hoped that when he grew up he found a way to go to school -- I will never know but can always hope that life has been kind to him. 

            “To all my children I am a very wealthy woman. According to their standard of living I am wealthy so there is not much sense in saying otherwise. When I see the thousands walking through Mexico on their way to the riches of North America I wonder why truth is not shown in TV programs that many see, that despite the good side there are bad sides in all those big cities, and on the farms and towns; homes are overcrowded, everyone does not have a job, the streets are laden with garbage, much of it there because earlier marchers have no place to live and where does one dispose of waste? -- on the street, of course! And then I wonder about birth control and I will continue to wonder about that, especially when I see so many young girls trudging along in all the countries where people are attempting to escape to a better life.

            “I do not have an answer. In small way I am helping one child and a community to perhaps have a better life than their grandmothers had. Or am I making it harder for them? I wonder…”


Bob Rollwagen focussed on our political situation: “Like to addictive substance rehab, where professionals know you have to hit bottom before you really start to work towards the cure, we have a while to wait before our neighbours figure out their addiction and how to heal.

            “We [in Canada] are not far off going in the same self-destructing direction, as government leaders raised in resource-based manufacturing economies treat deficits and taxes as the only critical issue and ignore green industry and global health.”

            Bob noted that all of us (except the indigenous peoples) came here as immigrants: “People move to improve. When they improve, they forget. We feel entitled, and when our level of comfort is threatened, we set up borders and rules -- not to be fair but to maintain the status quo as long as possible.”


Robert Caughell wondered, “How much of this/other things happening in Central and South America are the result of U.S. interference in other countries’ domestic affairs/economies? They get rid of a democratically elected leader they do not like, install a pro-U.S. puppet, or invade a country under false pretense when that puppet leader no longer does what the U.S. wants.”


Bob Warrick applied the Honduran example to his own Australia: “Today’s column was very moving, and informative. Thank you for your research.  Our government’s treatment of boat people on Manus and Nauru is similarly horrifying. Our politicians, who can change their minds on some things effortlessly, are unwilling to change their minds about these people and their need for a future other than being stuck where they are. I would like to have all our parliamentarians send their children to Nauru to live exactly as our prisoners there are ‘living’.”

            JT: I had not heard of Manus and Nauru. They are islands to which the Australian government sends asylum-seekers pending their applications being processed, which translates roughly into the same time period as incarceration at Guantanamo. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Solution






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet




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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: Malawi, albinos, albinism, witchcraft



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