- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

When Salif Keita was born in Africa more than a half-century ago, he and his mother were thrown out of their home by his father, horrified because the baby was white-skinned when he should have been black.

Mr. Keita, an albino from Mali, was fortunate because his father eventually took them back. “Albino babies are often sacrificed in Mali, and in Cameroon, an albino baby is killed as soon as he or she is born,” he said in a telephone interview from San Francisco.

In some parts of Africa, albino newborns are killed by other family members, who suspect the mother has had sex with a white man or assume the arrival of the colorless child means they are cursed.

Albino children in many parts of Africa are kidnapped and sacrificed, either because they are seen as ill omens or because of folklore that ascribes magical powers to potions produced from sacrificed albinos.

“That still happens, especially before elections” and important sports events, said Coumba Makalou, a Mali-born Marylander who heads a grass-roots group that uses African music and art to draw attention to conditions that are special problems in Africa, such as malaria and albinism.

Albinism, a genetic condition that deprives skin, hair and sometimes eyes of pigmentation, is more common in Africa than in the U.S. The U.S. incidence is one per 17,000 births, said the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), which has offices in New Hampshire. In parts of Africa, albinism is estimated to affect as many as one in 1,000 people, said NOAH President Mike McGowan.

“Albinism is more prevalent in closed areas, where there is not a lot of immigration or emigration,” he said.

Mr. McGowan said violence against albinos is “quite rare” in the United States but does occur. He cited the case of an American Indian albino who was beaten to death three years ago in northern Minnesota by a gang of teenagers who did not like the way he looked.

“An albino in this country faces an inordinate amount of teasing and staring, because he or she looks different,” Mr. McGowan said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Miss Makalou heads Conscientious Organizations Using Music to Bring Awareness, or COUMBA. She says the suffering of albinos is “an outrage, since it is all based on peoples’ ignorance.”

Miss Makalou is touring in the United States and Canada with Mr. Keita, whom she describes as “one of the top three singers in Africa,” assisting him in his bid to raise proceeds for a foundation he has established to help albinos in his native land.

The tour was arranged by Mr. Keita’s record company, Universal Jazz France, to promote his new album, “M’bemba.”

The cross-country tour began last week with a sold-out performance at the Apollo in New York and continued with more sell-out or near-sell-out concerts in California, including Los Angeles, Oakland and Santa Monica. Mr. Keita will wrap up the tour this week with performances at music festivals in four Canadian cities.

Mr. Keita, 57, said he has faced discrimination most of his life because of his condition, and is devoting his time and wealth to obtain fair treatment for other albinos.

Albinos face increased health risks such as skin cancer and impaired vision. Mr. Keita lost an albino sister to skin cancer about a decade ago.

He wants to make sure his 8-month-old albino daughter, Natenin, has access to the best care available. He has started a Web site (www.salifkeita.org) to raise money to build a hospital in Mali to provide proper care to ailing albinos as well as patients with a range of other medical disorders.

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