My Shocking Story Albino Island on TLC is Sad, Sad, Sad

If PBS is the station of learning about other cultures. TLC has GOT to be the station of having other culture’s happenings disgust and freak us out. Or, if you consider Jon and Kate, it’s having our OWN culture disgust and freak us out. So tonight TLC hit us with My Shocking Story; Albino Island.

Albino Island

Turns out it’s primarily about Tanzania Africa, with cutaways to a summer camp here in America for albinos in Pennsylvania. Both groups are as far apart geographically as they are in terms of living conditions. You DO remember Tanzania right? Come on! Hemingway? Kilimanjaro? You know! This place—->

Tanzania

But first let me set the stage a little. Here on this blog I’ve written about a few of these TLC My Shocking Story episodes. The Woman with Giant Legs, Half Man Half Tree, The Man with No Face, and The Electric Humans. I swore off these shows, but I did see the tv guide listings for the Mermaid Girl and I think another one called the Spider People. So Why my return to expressing my thoughts on these shows? Well this little article is just a teeny tiny effort to get the word out about atrocities in Africa. There are literally an infinite number of unsolvable problems over there. And this little program’s focus on just one medical condition helps the human mind at least grasp one story that can help people see how misery ripple out. And by the program also doing a little comparin’ and contrastin’ with the same medical condition here in North America they do the classic “bringin’ it on home.” And yeah, it’s a little on the cliche side. But what else can be done? Everybody here is concerned with our new 10 percent unemployment rate, people can’t even begin to imagine decades of a 60 or 70 percent unemployment rate. So let’s take a look at the program…

Mary

We more or less begin with the story of two sisters (Shida and Semeni), a bunch of unnamed siblings and their mother Mary Mathias. The two girls are albinos in Tanzania, Africa.

albino sisters

The girls are teens and like most African girls living at a village level society need to do a good deal of manual labor. Obtaining water and firewood are a big part of that. Or course, it’s Africa, and that means INTENSE sunlight.

Shida Mathias Africa

Which is quite terrible for people with no pigmentation. After all, the reason “black people” are “black” is because it’s an evolutionary defense against tremendous sunlight. The darker you are the better you’re able to handle sunlight. Dark skin is still prone to things like sunburn and skin cancer just LESS prone. So these girls are up shit creek; they have the absolute worse kind of skin for that environment.

Mathias sister1Mathias sister2

Now speaking of genetic evolution, let’s get into that. The program introduces a professor whose name is Dr. Brilliant!

Doc Brilliant

So Doc Brilliant has this brilliant idea. That MAYBE albinism is connected to leprosy. Hmmmm? Now let me be a little upfront here. I’m not a professor. But I DO have a very expensive degree in Anthropology from Columbia and yeah, it was cultural anthro but I did my last year’s focus on physical anthro. And even before they said it on the program I knew that leprosy was a communicable/contagious disease not a genetic disorder like, say, Sickle Cell Anemia. And even though Sickle Cell is an awful disease it’s a development in African populations that, rightly so, been theorized as a natural combatant to Malaria. Malaria and things like Sleeping Sickness can be spread by the TseTse fly and populations with sickle shaped cells WILL have a shorter life expectancy, but they will survive Malaria.

So the brilliant Dr. Brilliant decides to do some investigation. He already knows that some 1 in 14,000 people in this part of Africa are albinos (God was it 1,400?). And albinism is a recessive trait, so he wants to compare the DNA of albinos to lepers. First he goes to visit Samuel Mluge who has a charity called Under The Same Sun.

Samuel

The charity is a where the kinda sad story gets REALLY sad. See, all the albinos have to live in the locked compound so they don’t get killed. That’s right. In this part of the world with one of the highest albino populations in the world they’re ostracized even more than normal society. AND the people have started to hunt them. AND CHOP THEIR LIMBS OFF for “witchcraft” ingredients.

Man, I love how for Native Americans (and pretty much EVERY village level culture) it’s “medicine man,” “healer” and “shaman” but for Africa…Not that I’m sticking up for the bad guys, but still; the show did itself a disservice by going that route. If it 1950, fine. But 2009? Really?

lockalbino kidsmore kidsprotected kids

Let’s talk a little about the physiological aspects

When I was younger I used to see albinos all the time. I rarely see them anymore. I’ve known black ones and white ones. The weird thing is how similar they look despite their ethnic background. In fact, it’s a great lesson in humanity to see people WITHOUT pigmentation-It’s a great reminder that we’re all humans and the skin tone is a ridiculous separation device. “Human” doesn’t mean some people are dogs and some people are rocks, and some people are trees. Human means 2 arms,  2 legs, a brain, some sex organs and upright walking.

Anyway in fact in my early college years a friend and I got enjoyment every single day from calling an albino guy we worked with “Al” and having him correct us every single time and say “My name is Lou, how do you guys forget every day?!” Hey, I never said I was a great guy, and I’ve grown. A little. But one of the things we noticed was how BAD his vision was. He used to read everything just like these guys.

bad vision

And in the program they talk about how aside from the susceptibility to skin cancer one of the biggest problems with albinism is vision.

braille

By the way, if you need glasses-do go online.

Online Glasses link 1 and Online Glasses link 2

I don’t want to spoil the show for people who haven’t seen it yet, so I wont reveal all the details, but I will continue with Dr. Brilliant’s next move. Which is that he then continues his journey to the leper village to collect DNA samples. I mean wow, now you’ve got to try to take in an entire OTHER group of sickly, destitute and unhappy people in the SAME area of the SAME country.

Selina

Her hands

decayed hands

Another resident

lady with leprosy

MY Crazy Theories

Hey Dr. Brilliant had a theory and he was wrong so I’M proposing a theory too. Why not? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that there MIGHT be a connection between albinism and the disease Michael Jackson had. The dreaded vitiligo. Think about it; Michal Jackson had depigmentation through vitiligo. And check this out, leprosy goes for the hands and feet first JUST like Michael Jackson. Did you know THAT was why he started wearing the glove?

Michael vitiligo

Just in CASE you think it’s a made up disease I encourage you to do an image search on google. Here’s a sample

severeDesiree_Vitiligo

They don’t even know what causes is. Can’t confirm if it’s purely genetic or if environment plays a factor. I also believe that ultimately albinism will be explained by a case of genetic drift. I put a wiki link in there for you guys. But similar to Tay-Sachs.

But Back to the Show

So, the “b story” of the episode is about Lee-Anne Thompson who’s from Canada and goes to an all albino camp.

lee anne

Obviously it’s in start contrast to what’s happening in Africa BUT keep in mind all those young people essentially live in isolation and they’ve got to spend the rest of their lives like that too. So no picnic for them either.

campgood times

In conclusion

The show doesn’t really offer any kind of resolution or avenue to help. The give the sisters some sunglasses and Doc Brilliant is the closing shot as if its all about HIM. Nice guy, but it really isn’t.

The sad part is that TLC could easily have closed the show with a  screen that said “If you’d like to help out go to this website…” But, because I’ve been at this for a while, I know about the super secret, hard to find BRITISH version of the TLC website, that actually does have a section dedicated My Shocking Story section.

In the meantime I found a link to the organization. And the image below links to the charity site.

under the same sun

And a GREAT personal website (from a web designer who should be kicking it up a notch!) about the history of albinism and lifestyle of the artist who created the site is…

The Golden Child.

Guess what I learned over there? Not only is my personal theory that albinism might be connected to vitiligo not an original idea, but the theory is over a hundred years old!

Professor Holloway

Professor Holloway

And hey, not that it’s related to anything, but the man who taught me physical anthropology was on Nova Nov. 3 (with a rerun on Nov. 16 talking about early humans. The program is called Becoming Human; First Steps. The Doc pops up every so often on these “early man” shows on PBS, TLC or Discovery. So let’s give him a round of applause too because I PROBABLY wouldn’t be taking the time to write pieces like this (when I could be focusing on making money) without him…