February 9, 1997
By DONALD G. MCNEIL JR.
John M. Makumbe is a professor of political science. Richard Nyathi is chief librarian for a Government ministry. Stanley S. Gunda is a senior financial officer in another ministry. Not so long ago, they might have been killed at birth. `
Messrs. Makumbe, Nyathi and Gunda are albinos. In Africa, far more than on any other continent, that is a lifelong curse. They lack the gene that codes the skin pigment melanin, and they are very nearsighted. As white-skinned men in a black society, they are shunned and feared as the products of witchcraft, taunted by children and drunks as ``peeled potatoes,`` ``monkeys`` and ``ghosts.``
There is a stereotype that all albinos are intelligent and accomplished, as these three men are. But Professor Makumbe said successful albinos were ``a teeny-weeny minute number.`` Most, he added, languish at home without education because they cannot see the blackboard at school or because their parents, told such children die young, will not pay for their schooling. â€¦
In the United States, about 1 person in 20,000 is an albino, according to doctors at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, which has a clinic that studies the genetics of albinism. The condition is more common among blacks than among whites, and almost unknown among Asians.
In parts of Nigeria, as many as 1 in 1,100 are albino; in parts of South Africa the incidence is 1 in 1,800. It varies sharply from country to country and tribe to tribe, said Jennifer Kromberg, an expert on albinism at the South African Institute for Medical Research. For instance, in South Africa it is twice as high among Tswana as among Zulu, she said, because Tswana encourage marriage between cousins while Zulu forbid it.
â€¦ Albinism comes from a recessive gene and must be inherited from both parents. Not all children in affected families are albino. Mr. Nyathi, for example, has two albino siblings, while his parents and eight other siblings are black.
â€¦ Superstitions are strong in rural Zimbabwe. The practice of killing suspected witches survives, and albino children were once smothered at birth. The belief that adult albinos do not die, but simply vanish, is still widely held. â€¦
Professor Kromberg said surveys she had done among young albino adults in Soweto, South Africa, found that they were rarely shunned on buses or in the classroom but did have much lower marriage rates and believed that they would have difficulty finding work. She said she had come across anecdotal evidence that black children were reluctant to share food with albino classmates. â€¦
All three men did well in school, despite vision problems. The genetic differences that cause albinism also change the connections between the optic nerves and the brain. Many albinos have nystagmus — ``dancing eyeballs`` — and myopia that, even with thick glasses, can only be corrected to about 20-200.
``Albinos seem more intelligent because they try harder,`` Mr. Nyathi said. ``You have to get out of your seat, go up to the board, squint, write two sentences, go back, and still finish the test in the same time as the others.``
Dr. Kromberg said her intelligence studies had confirmed that. ``Albinos have normal I.Q.`s but a higher capability,`` she said. ``I think it`s because they don`t play in the sun all day. They stay inside and do their homework.``
So, are albinos smarter or just more bookish?
I can`t find the names of too many high-achieving albinos in the West: just rock musicians Edgar and Johnny Winter (but Roy Orbison was not an albino), reggae star Yellowman, and, most interestingly, the famous Oxford don Rev. William Archibald Spooner, the Sam Goldwyn of Britain, for whom the term spoonerism is named:
At a naval review Spooner marveled at "this vast display of cattle ships and bruisers."
To a school official`s secretary: "Is the bean dizzy?"
Visiting a friend`s country cottage: "You have a nosy little cook here."
So, not much evidence for albinos being smarter than average.