Being a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire, didn’t protect singer Salif Keita from being ostracised by his community as a child because of his albinism.
After carving out a successful career as a singer – an incredible achievement on its own for a man with this disease – he has spent many years fighting the ignorance and superstition surrounding this condition.
The Salif Keita Global Foundation, begun by the singer and run by his wife, Coumba Makalou Keita, quotes Keita as saying “creating thoughts of love towards those with the condition is the first priority and the strongest power in changing the lives of those with albinism. After that, every other positive change will have to follow automatically”.
He believes that a lot of progress has been made in eradicating ignorance about albinism – a cause he says he was born to fight for.
You were born in a time when ignorance and its accompanying superstition were much worse and you were cast out of your community. Do you believe the grip of superstition has loosened significantly since your childhood?
Yes, and this is exactly what I have been fighting for since my so-called childhood. People are more intelligent nowadays, and parents are aware enough that albinism is not a curse, but a disease, which, like any other, needs to be treated with care and love.
Still, there are people who mock those with the disease or believe old superstitions, but it is better than before. More and more people also are aware that we have the same rights as any other human being on earth, and that governments and organisations are watching out for the respect of those rights.
Your albinism should have prevented you from becoming a singer, a griot or a storyteller in African culture, yet you have used your role to rewrite history. Do you see yourself in the role of a griot fighting the scourge of prejudice?
This is what I am, I choose to be that! and I am proud of it today. And it isn’t only me, there are many doing the same. Some sing, some talk, some write, some make movies. We are all fighting the scourge of prejudice.
You know, it is not only telling stories and fighting prejudice. I sing about many others things, because I believe we humans always need reminders.
Music is my way of talking about caring in society, between lovers, and of caring for the earth because we only have one. So we must care.
These lyrics from La Difference, released in 2009 are: “I am black/ my skin is white/ so I am white and my blood is black (albino)/…I love that because it is a difference that’s beautiful…”, “some of us are beautiful some are not/some are black, some are white/all that difference was on purpose…for us to complete each other/let everyone get his love and dignity/the world will be beautiful.” This attests to your hopes for humanity. How powerful a medium is music for social change?
The more beautiful the lyrics are, the more powerful the message will be and the more efficient the change will be. You know these lyrics changed the way many people were seeing albinism, because it got into their head and, I believe, all the way to their heart. There to remain, I hope.
In 2007, you were named seventh most powerful celebrity in Africa in 2011 by Forbes Magazine. Do lists like this help you to access more resources in your fight for the rights of those with albinism?
Of course, it does always. This kind of listing is so supportive, because even if some doors stay closed, it gives me strength to force them open.
Your website points out that, among some peoples in Panama and on the Fiji Islands, albinism is considered a blessing. Harry Freeland’s 2012 film, The Shadow of the Sun, follows the lives of a community of people with albinism in Tanzania who risk being killed for their body parts to make muti – in a five-year period 72 people were murdered for body parts. Do you feel frustrated sometimes by the arbitrary nature of prejudice and are governments doing enough to protect these vulnerable citizens?
Some governments are doing their best. Human rights awareness is everywhere. Many sing, many make movies, as well as use radio and TV to sensitise people, but still some remain unteachable.
This is what really frustrates me. Once a person is aware, there is no excuse for prejudice. There are those who refuse to see we’ve got legs and hands like them, and still insist on seeing us as other than human beings.
What has been the biggest driving force for you personally, as a philanthropist?
Humanity! I believe in human beings. I believe in a better world.
Where has really good progress been made in changing people’s attitudes to albinism?
(smile) I hope everywhere. But in Mali it definitely has changed a lot.
What have been the most inspiring stories coming out of the work of your foundation?
You know, they all are touching. But we had to deal with this special albino in April this year. A young boy came to us directly from the village. He had his face half burnt and infected, to the point that he needed an operation quickly.
The foundation took care of all the formalities, he had the operation, but unfortunately it didn’t go well. After a few days, he left the hospital for his village, where he finally left this world for, I hope, a better place.
From the burning to the operation, there was a lack of facilities. Since that we have pulled together with others to keep going and come up with better solutions so that a case like this never happens again.
Who have you partnered with most notably in your philanthropy work?
One way or another with all the people around me, because they all show care, give good advice for this or that and it all helps. There are so many, I can’t even list them.
There are those who help by collecting funds, to those who help physically and work for the foundation despite themselves struggling sometimes. But they stay, and they are all appreciated and are part of the success of the foundation.
Being a 21st-century philanthropy is about giving more than money. It is about sharing wisdom, knowledge and time too. Would you agree that you are a new-generation philanthropist?
I was born ready to help and fight for this cause, always urging politicians and organisations, and now the many people with me giving of our time and energy without even thinking of resting. I personally do it with great pleasure. It gives meaning to my life.
» Salif Keita performed at FNB stadium last night as part of the Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day at Soccer City. Visit www.salifkeita.us to find out more about his foundation
» This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.
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