As an albino, Cameroonian musician Mengue Ondou Etienne faced resistance when he first took to the stage 30 years ago. But now he is being honored as a trailblazer in the fight to end discrimination against albinos in Cameroon.
Etienne, better known by his stage name Calvino, uses the mvet, a traditional musical instrument popular among the Fang people of Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea to thrill his audience in the Equato-Guinean capital, Malabo.
He has been invited here by artists from the three countries in recognition of his work to dispel myths about albinos.
Calvino says like other albinos, he grew up ostracized and harassed. At the age of 15 he ran to a policeman for protection and the policeman called him evil. That was when he says he made the decision to use his voice for change.
He says he would board a taxi or a public bus and people would get off in protest because of his color. He created an association for the defense of albinos called ASMODISSA. He says he also wrote to the Malian-born singer Salif Keita with the idea of creating a broader network and together they founded SOS Albinos.
In Cameroon, members of some ethnic groups kill albinos to appease the gods when there are natural calamities. Albinos can also be barred from appearing in public in some areas. Calvino says such perceptions are now changing.
Performance is key
A key part of his activism has been performing at schools.
He says before, albinos with bad eyesight were kept on back benches in classrooms, but recently the government of Cameroon has been asking teachers to make text bigger so albino children can read alongside other children.
Fifteen-year old albino Collette Manga saw Calvino sing at her school when she was young and it encouraged her to stay in school.
“I was not ashamed to go in front of the board to take my notes,” said Manga. “Some of my friends just shout that ho move there, move there with those eyes which do not see. It is from that time that I look at myself and said really? But in other circumstances I am not taking myself like a different person. I am seeing myself as a black person, like a human being. In fact, it is a gift from God. We have to accept ourselves like that.”
Cameroonian social worker Awemo Patrick says Calvino has had an impact.
“I mean the people in Cameroon who matter are now giving albinos the position they deserve in the society meaning if you are an albino, you are going to school, you deserve a job,” said Patrick. “They give you the rightful position which you deserve. Through his music, the songs, the message is going across and the authorities are taking it seriously.”
Calvino says the number of albinos graduating from university is gradually increasing and fewer albino babies are being killed, but he will continue his fight against social injustice.