April 28, 2010

Competing Visions of White.

Superstitions in Tanzania are plentiful, some more consequential than others. But one superstition in particular is outright deadly. Many people in Tanzania, as across Africa, believe albinos have magical powers. Recently this belief has morphed into a morbid practice. Since 2008, more than 26 albinos, including children, have been mutilated and killed; victims to the belief promoted by witch doctors that albino body parts including skin, bones, and hair are key ingredients in potions that will make people rich. Under this same guise, some fishermen weave albino hairs into their nets believing they will catch more fish in this way. These superstitions have resulted in a gruesome and growing criminal trade in albino body parts.

It is not clear why these practices have flared up in recent years, and police officials are at a loss to explain this recent wave of albino killings. Some claim an influx of Nigerian movies, which hail witchcraft practices, explain this recent wave of killings, especially as people who follow witch doctors tend to do so in an unquestioning manner. Of course, rising food prices and the desperation this causes might be more basic explanations, as people seek easier, "fail-proof" paths to riches. The below youtube video provides some interesting insights into the historical and contextual circumstances that have given rise to these practices and beliefs.

South East Asia provides a starkly different set of beliefs around albinism. In fact, the kings of Thailand, Laos, and Burma have given a sacred status to albino elephants. This tradition derives from a story in which the Buddha's mother is said to have dreamt of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower -- a symbol of purity and wisdom -- just before she gave birth. This story has imparted a cultural legacy that survives today -- a monarch possessing a white elephant is regarded as a just and benign ruler. Across the region, any genuinely albino elephant automatically became royal property (of course, first meeting the physical characteristics used to rank elephants as outlined in the Royal Elephant Musuem). Laws were even developed to prevent these sacred white elephants from engaging in work, so ironically despite being venerated they served no practical use while costing a fortune to keep.

Today in Thailand, the white elephant retains its sacred status. A white elephant is still kept on the grounds of the current Thai King's home, Chitralada Palace. A museum in Bangkok houses a sculptural representation of that elephant, which is draped in royal vestments, and is essentially treated as a shrine by the visiting Thai public.

Dually inspired by this more positive legacy and cultural set of beliefs, I share the below photos I have gathered from various home design blogs. Also, keep in mind, if you are in the Chicago-area the Children's Hospital White Elephant shop is always fun to pass through and supports a great cause.





Lonely Planet: Bangkok City Guide

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