Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shame of albino killings and the tomato men will die for

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Tanzania has been in the international news for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks— the horrific murders of albinos for their body parts.

In Tanzania, there is widespread belief in the superstition and witchcraft industry that the body parts of albinos can help a politician win an election; a businessman multiply his fortune 100 times over; and the tycoon’s mistress to become pregnant with triplets.

This year alone, there have been 30 gory murders of albinos, and at least 50 witchdoctors are in prison in connection with the killings.

But you would be seriously misled if you thought that the albino killings were a Tanzanian problem. A lethal mix of greed, East African-wide demand by business people in the region, and the high prevalence of albinism on the east coast have produced them.

A very insightful report in the British weekend paper, The Observer, recently noted that while albinism exists in Europe and North America where it affects one in 20,000 people, it is far more widespread in Africa. In Tanzania, albinism affects one in 4,000 people — it is 500 per cent higher than in Europe.

Some figures suggest there are 370,000 albinos in Tanzania, far higher than in any East African country. One reason for this, some researchers have suggested, is that the source of the albino gene can be traced to Africa’s east coast.

The Observer reported that businessmen from the Democratic Republic of Congo — joined by their greedy colleagues from Burundi, Kenya, and Uganda — have descended upon Tanzania, looking for albino parts.

The Daily News in Tanzania reported that a fisherman at Lake Tanganyika allegedly tried to sell his albino wife to businessmen from the DRC for £2,000 (Sh238,000). An albino hand is selling for £1,200 (Sh143,000).

Non-albinos might not feel threatened, but they should be. Imagine some medicine man claiming, for example, that the eye of a Kikuyu can bring riches.

Within six months, many Kikuyus will be walking around either blind or with one eye. Also, almost no Kikuyu will be found outside his or her house beyond 6.30pm.

The biggest tragedy of the prejudices about albinism is to be found, not in Tanzania, but the DRC. A heavily superstitious nation, its albino population has almost been “hunted” into extinction.

Sometimes, however, our darkest needs and fears can be exploited to better, though still controversial, effect. The Independent reports that scientists at the John Innes Centre in the British city of Norwich have developed a genetically modified purple tomato, that can help fight cancer and heart diseases.

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Eating the tomato is likely to help people protect themselves against certain cancers, heart diseases, and degenerative illnesses linked to ageing.

However, this tomato is unlikely to come to the Nakumatt supermarket near you any day, because of strong opposition to GM foods in the UK and Europe in general due to the associated risks.

But John Krebs, Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, argues that introducing life-saving genes into GM foods might just be what will break down this resistance.

Writing in The Times, he suggests (admittedly, tongue-in-cheek), that the surest way to get consumers to love GM would be to add Viagra gene in tomatoes.

We might add, for good measure, throw in genes that help vain women enhance their busts, and you can be sure the longest queues will be at the genetically modified organisms vegetable stalls.

Religion is almost always in conflict with such science. But religion, especially that which is staunchly opposed to contraception like Catholicism, would love Greg Bryant, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Writing in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, Bryant discusses his recent study that found that women’s voices rise and fall in tune with their fertility. The findings were the first to point to a link between fertility and voice, and went against the long-held belief that humans, unlike many other animals, hide any evidence of ovulation.

Building on this study to develop a natural method of contraception which doesn’t offend God, the churches could encourage men who want to avoid unwanted pregnancies, for example, to do something we have been told we are not good at it — listening to the fine nuances in your wife’s or girlfriend’s voice.

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We end with the award of the smartest villain of the week prize, which we haven’t handed out for very long now. It goes to the thieves in Jamaica who stole a beach. Yes, a beach.

They stole hundreds of tonnes of white-sand from a planned resort on the island’s north coast. The theft was so unprecedented that Prime Minister Bruce Golding has taken a special interest.

The theft embarrassed the Jamaican police to no end because anything that might affect tourism is watched closely. It would have taken 500 truckloads to steal the amount of sand from the Coral Spring beach, and it boggles the mind to imagine the police missed it.

In Kenyan terms, it would be equivalent to stealing the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, and getting away with it.

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