Is this “The African Way”?

The cliché goes “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

I went on at great length this morning about why we must intervene when we see superstition hurting people – that our fear of appearing paternalistic has overpowered our reason and paralyzed us into inactivity. Maybe this will illustrate what I mean:

The dismembered body of a young albino boy has been found in a river on the Burundi-Tanzania border, reports say. The boy, aged nine, was taken from Makamba province in Burundi by a gang that crossed the border, the head of Burundi’s albino association said. Albino body parts are prized in parts of Africa, with witch-doctors claiming they have special powers. In Tanzania, the body parts of people living with albinism are used by witch-doctors for potions which they tell clients will help make them rich or healthy. Dozens of albinos have been killed, and the killings have spread to neighbouring Burundi.

Albinism, as anyone who has taken a high school science course knows, is the result of a single-gene mutation. When two recessive alleles are expressed in one individual, the skin does not produce melanin – the substance that gives skin its colour. Albinism among Europeans is rare enough, but not so dramatic when it happens. Among the dark-skinned population of southern Africa, an albino person is a stark contrast.

There is nothing at all in the recessive allele that grants any particular properties to the body parts of albino people. It regulates the expression of a particular protein sequence, that’s it. The same kind of properties that make my hair curly and black, whereas my neighbour’s is wavy and blonde, are the kinds of differences we are talking about. There’s no magic in it at all – certainly not anything that will affect your wealth or physical function.

The only real tangible side-effect of albinism that goes beyond simple difference in colour is that albinos are a target for kidnappers and murderers. This isn’t as a product of their skin, but as a product of a specific set of beliefs about their skin. Here’s a challenge for you readers: read a simple article on Mendelian genetic theory (like this one from the University of Arizona) until you feel like you have a general grasp of the idea. Now talk to a friend or family member who is not particularly “sciency”, and teach them the theory. I’d be surprised if it takes longer than 15 minutes for them to grasp the basics. Then, ask them if albinos are magic.

My point is that it is superficially easy to arm someone with enough basic scientific knowledge to know about single-gene mutations, and that they don’t grant magic powers. Trivially easy. Why are we not doing this in Africa, where what they don’t know is literally killing people?

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