An Object of Superstition

AlbinoFrom: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


Each week, the Basse Health Centre where I worked in The Gambia conducted an antenatal (prenatal) clinic and a separate well baby clinic for children five years and younger. Sister Roberts suggested that I attend these clinics where record keeping was vital. I agreed, not knowing that I would be involved in a local superstition.

The next day, Tuesday, I helped in the antenatal clinic. The clinic, a separate building in the hospital compound, had rows of perhaps fifty chairs on one side and a couple of tables at the other. Outside, the overflow waited in a covered area. Many of these pregnant women had come from miles away, most walking, some arriving in bush taxis. or donkey-pulled carts. Many carried babies on their backs.

Women and their children stood in line, which, at first, was a phenomenon to me. My African experience so far had been crowds of pushing people, at banks, the post office, the ferries and bus stops. But here the woman formed a queue, as instructed, and stayed in line with their well-behaved children in tow.

At one table, the auxiliary nurses reviewed the woman’s personal health record, took blood pressure, and pulled down the lower eyelid to look for pale coloration, a sign of anemia. Many Gambian women were anemic due to frequent childbearing. The woman then progressed to the next table to see the nurse mid-wife while I recorded the woman’s name and entered information in a ledger. All during this procedure, I noticed women shielding their eyes from me. Some actually cupped their hands around their eyes to avoid looking at me.

I asked the nurse mid-wife why the pregnant women wouldn’t look at me. “Oh, Mariama, it’s a stupid superstition that if they see a white person they’ll have an albino baby.”

I had seen African albinos and it is an unfortunate condition. Their skin is white and very sensitive to the sun. An albino’s eyes are affected with extreme light sensitivity. Having an albino baby would be something to fear. It bothered me that the women felt threatened by my presence.

After clinic that first day, I told Sister Roberts about my concern. She also scoffed at the superstition.

“But still,” I countered, “I don’t want to give them that worry.”

We agreed that I wouldn’t attend the antenatal clinics, but she definitely wanted me to attend the well baby clinic on Fridays. It was a good compromise. I felt odd enough without having to bear the burden of having women think I would be the cause of their having an albino baby.