In the first of a two-part series, guest blogger Ogo Maduewesi, founder of the Vitiligo Support and Awareness Foundation (www.vitsaf.org), speaks candidly about the stigma associated with vitiligo and the challenges faced by sufferers in West Africa.
Vitiligo is a hugely stigmatised condition, especially in Africa. Facing not only a visible, disfiguring skin problem, many patients also endure psychological, psychosocial and emotional stress from the disease and its stigma. This usually results in increased susceptibility to vitiligo: the stress of stigmatisation can often lead to further progression of the disease.
Social, religious and tribal factors play a significant role in stigmatisation in Africa. The main contributing factor to social stigma is that vitiligo is considered by many as a wrath of the Gods upon an individual. Further, because little or nothing had been heard about vitiligo in West Africa before now, people were left to make assumptions or create fantasies about the condition.
One particular tribe in Nigeria strongly believes that anyone who has vitiligo has offended the Gods by eating a particular food forbidden by his/her family and that until the Gods are appeased the vitiligo will not go away.
Another tribe believes that it’s a curse or nemesis: they practically see a person with vitiligo as someone who has committed an offence; the Gods are visiting with vitiligo vengeance. In one instance I know of, a husband left his wife and kids because she suddenly started turning white, he believed it was a nemesis from her family. To some, marriage has become a distant dream. Even when two people agree to wed, the family imposes and cancels their nuptials (VITSAF has tried to address this issue in one of its recent videos linked below).
The role of ‘magic’
This is a highly religious and superstitious part of the world and, as I’ve said in an earlier post, the words of local prophets and diabolical doctors (commonly called Dibia, Babalawo) weigh heavily. Their advice plays a large part in initial vitiligo treatment, until a certain stage of the condition’s progression, by which point so many resources have been wasted that could have been put to better use.
The most common vitiligo myth in Africa is that it’s inflicted by bad or evil people through magical powers. I have been told many times that such people brought vitiligo upon me to destroy my face so that I wouldn’t be able to find a husband.
I was called, at one point, to intervene between two families in a deep squabble: one was accusing the other of having inflicted vitiligo upon one of their members through magical powers. These beliefs are so strong that even when I meet some sufferers and try to counsel them, they look me straight in the face and tell me that their condition is different from mine: mine is a health condition, theirs is spiritual attack.
Editor’s note: Part two will be published shortly. VITSAF has created a series of videos to help combat the social stigma of vitiligo in West Africa, you can view all five videos in the series below:
“Africa Satellite Plan” By NASA, via Wikimedia Commons see http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_satellite_plane.jpg for license details.