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Africa

Cameroonian albino fights prejudice with music

The 49-year-old Mengue Etienne lives with albinism. As a young boy he was chased out of a taxi and when he turned to a police officer, he told him "albinos are evil." The experience led to his fascinating musical career.

Singer-songwriter Mengue Ondou Etienne is best known by his stage name: Calvino. His favorite instrument is the "mvet," which is common among the Fang people of Cameroon, Gabon, Sao Tome and Equatorial Guinea.

Playing the stringed mvet - also known as the harp lute - Calvino is known to thrill his audiences in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. He has been invited to play for audiences around Africa in recognition of his musical skills and his stand against the superstitious beliefs and myths meted out on people like him who are living with albinism.

As a young teenager growing up in Cameroon, Etienne was often discriminated against because of his skin color. Many people in Cameroon believe that people with albinism are "evil spirits."

"Every time I boarded a taxi or bus, people would immediately disembark in protest of my presence," Etienne said.

The musician added that like other albinos, he has been abused both physically and psychologically. When he was 15, Etienne sought the protection of a police officer after a small mob surrounded him as he was boarding a cab.

Instead of helping him, the officer refused, calling him "evil." This experience angered the now 49-year-old. He chose to fight back and his weapon of choice was music and the mvet. Etienne also reached out another musician living with albinism: the legendary Malian singer songwriter, Salif Keita.

"I wrote to Salif Keita requesting that we create an association for our albino brothers and sisters. He shared my idea and we started the organization SOS Albinos. I also started mobilizing people in Cameroon under the association for the defense of the rights and interests of albinos(or ASMODISSA)," Etienne said.

Ritual sacrifice

In many African countries, powerful ethnic groups and individuals have called for the killing of people living with albinism. Some even pay for their severed body parts for ritual practices.

But Etienne's organizations successfully lobbied the government which now recognizes the difficulties they face on a daily basis and even changed existing rules in schools to be more accepting.

"An albino cannot clearly see an object from afar. We have difficulties reading small characters written on a blackboard. Now the state has asked for those characters to be increased, so that albino children are able to read alongside other children in classrooms," Etienne said.

Cameroon: Albino speaking to DW correspondent Moki Kindzeka

Mengue Etienne told DW Correspondent Moki Kindzka that he wants albinos to be recognized as normal human beings

"I said to myself in primary school that I won't allow my current circumstances to dictate who I am or consider myself a different person. I saw myself as a black person and a human being. In fact, it is a gift from God and we have to accept ourselves like that," said 15-year-old Collette Manga who also lives with albinism.

Changing perspectives

Perceptions are changing in Cameroon too. "I was afraid of them, but not anymore," said Tamba Clementine, a tailor living in northwestern Cameroon. One of Clementine's clients is a woman living with albinism.

"She is a nice person and has a good heart," Clementine said. "She has become like a mother to me. We spend a lot of time together. But some people are afraid because of their skin color and the way they look."

According to Cameroonian social worker Patrick Awemo, these changes are largely due to the work of Mengue Etienne. "Calvino's message is creating an impact," he said.

"His music is geared towards telling people that they are people who have equal rights in the society. They are people, who also think, act, and do things that normal human beings do," said Awemo.

After his successes in putting the agenda of people with albinism at the core of discussion forums in the country, Etienne now wants to expand his campaign to others.

"The state carries out so many projects in the name of the poor, but in reality only government workers benefit," he said.

Etienne said that these issues will feature largely in his upcoming album.

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