• Tuesday, June 25, 2024
businessday logo


The perils of yellow fever



When I was a scruffy teenage undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University, Fela visited us. The legendary musical maestro was in Zaria to do a musical performance. Some friends of mine invited me to accompany them to see him in Zaria Hotel where he was staying. We met him at the swimming pool area. He was draped in nothing save his underpants and a large necklace that hang over his neck, made of cowrie shells, like an Ifa priest. His harems of 27 wives were all in tow, looking as dour as springboks in the High Veldt. My mates were soon caught up in endless banter and “yabis” with the great man. Scions of the northern aristocracy, Fela knew most of them. They used to jump the high walls of Kings College Yaba at night to participate in the colourful spectacles of Kalakuta Republic.


I was an unworldly missionary kid from the ancient savannah of the Middle Belt — shy, tongue-tied and rather reticent. Fela apparently took a special interest in me precisely for that reason. When our eyes met, he pretended to be hissing, “Foolish Hausa man”, he blurted. Everybody roared with laughter. Those were the good old days. We had the entire world at our feet — the future before us.


One of the great musical pieces for which Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would be remembered is “Yellow Fever”, a song decrying the evils of skin bleaching that was so common in those days. A good number of my gentle readers would recall the tune: “You dey bleach o you dey bleach…yellow fever… I say tell them make them hear; All fever na sickness; Original sickness…”


Much of our continent in those golden Penkelemes years had become independent barely more than a decade. Neo-colonialism was and still is, a grim reality of our world. Centuries of slavery, colonialism, rape and rapine had made the African people to lose confidence in themselves and in their glorious heritage. Having achieved formal independence, freeing ourselves from mental slavery was the more difficult task, thanks to our Babylonian servitude and the trans-Atlantic propaganda that has consigned a great people into the status of the dregs of civilisation. It broke the confidence of our people. In the 1970s and eighties bleaching using such creams as Ambi became a major social problem. Few could take pride in their God-given brown skin. And fewer still would believe in their own innate capacity to develop original ideas and to shape the world in accordance with our genius and vision. Franz Fanon magisterially explained the problem in his famous book, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press 1952).


This problem was not only rampant on the Mother Continent, it was also the experience of much of the African Diaspora; among African-Americans and the black peoples of Europe, Latin America and the islands of the seas. In one of the novels of the great African-American novelist, James Baldwin, a black character who had been imprisoned for having raped a white woman declares that there is nothing black he ever wants in life “except a Cadillac”.


Fela, as some of my gentle readers would recall, started off as a medical student in London University before abandoning the stethoscope for the trumpet. He also travelled widely in the United States, meeting such Black Power activists as Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Bobby Seal and Stokely Carmichael (who later became Kwame Ture). I imagine that much of his cultural and political consciousness was shaped by those encounters. It must have shaped the direction of his musical giftedness in favour of pan-Africanism and black consciousness. In insisting on African naturalism and rejecting the borrowed culture of those Ali Mazrui termed ‘the Afro-Saxons’, Fela was a titanic influence in shaping cultural nationalism during my growing up years. After Fela’s Yellow Fever, not many people felt comfortable bleaching their skin anymore.


Today, sadly, the disease is back with a vengeance. Two years ago I was in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa for a major international conference. We were hosted at a plush hotel – the best in the capital. It overlooked the lagoon that feeds the immense Congo River. From the distance you could see the bright lights of its sister city of Brazzaville in the neighbouring country of Republic of the Congo. When I wanted to shower I discovered that the only soap available was a bleaching savon. I called Housekeeping to request another soap. They seemed infinitely perplexed. They could not understand what it was about that I was so worked up. All soaps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are bleaching soaps. I got a driver and went into town. After several hours I was able to find, at last, a bar of soap that had no skin-lightening chemicals.


I spent altogether ten days in Kinshasa, with brief excursions into the Edenic countryside of the Bonobo Reserve. Nigeria is a great country, but I make bold to say that the Good Lord was rather partial when he created the DRC. This is a country of 3 million km2, the size of Western Europe. Its natural resource endowments, in present value dollar terms, have been estimated at over US$40 trillion, the combined GDP of the United States and the European Union. And yet, paradox of paradoxes, it is a beggarly, low-income fourth-world nation. I have seen such poverty anywhere except, perhaps, India. For decades, international vultures, hyenas and mercenaries have ensured that the country will never exist as a meaningful political state with a viable government and an effective civil administration.


During his thirty-year iron rule, from 1967 to `1997, the Mobutu and his coteries enriched himself at the expense of his benighted people. In the name of so-called ‘African authenticity’, he changed the name of the country to Zaire and compelled everyone to replace their Christian/European names with African ones. He himself changed his baptismal names of Joseph-Desiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. Roughly translated, it means: “The warrior who knows no defeat because of his endurance and inflexible will and is all powerful, leaving fire in his wake as he goes from conquest to conquest”.


Clearly, Mobutu’s African authenticity was a ruse. He turned up to be the greatest ‘bleacher’ on the continent. He fell in love and married a fair-skinned woman. Nothing wrong with that, except that she was an identical twin. To ensure that no man would ever have a woman that looked like his, he married the twin sisters. His ministers’ wives were also his to take, as the spirit moved him. The husbands who obliged saw their careers skyrocket; those who took umbrage at such sacrilege suffered demotion or worse.


Mobutu set the tone in his benighted Zaire for thirty years. Everybody bleached; men and women, old and young. All you saw of adverts were pictures of bleached women and men. What mattered was bleaching, drinking, dancing and fashion. Today, the Congo is the quintessential failed state in Africa; an apostate nation run by rulers who understand only diamonds, guns, goons and bleached girls.


Nigeria, sad to say, is only a little better. I was out of this country for slightly over five years. I came back recently to a country that is becoming rather unrecognisable. The lights have gone out of the eyes of my people. It is not only the lawlessness and random, nihilistic, violence; it is also about the sheer atmosphere of gloom and pessimism. The intellectuals have become silent, save for Kongi’s lone voice and Odia’a occasional poetic irreverence. Today, ignorance sells at a premium while grand larceny occupies central stage. Mammon has become the golden calf of our new age.


There is no better symptom of this sickness unto death, to echo the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, than the bleaching artifice that has gripped this blessed land of my forefathers. Most of the women wear the hairs of dead Indians and Brazilians. And do you notice that there are no black women anymore? Most women have become as pale as ghosts. But it is not only the women. As far back as the eighties, some of our military tyrants were closet ‘bleachers’. And the civilian politicians were not far behind.


We can blame all these trends on Nollywood which betrays a preference for fair-skinned actors; or perhaps globalisation and its stepchild, Global Apartheid, and its subliminal media messages that portray Africa and its peoples in negative, destructive terms.



Today, Nigeria is reckoned to be the capital of world bleaching. The London-based Economist newspaper recently estimated that the bleaching and skin-lightening industry is currently a US$10 billion business. Most of it is targeted at the African market. Nigeria, DRC, Ghana and Kenya are among the principal importers of these dangerous chemicals of death. The Economist also quotes a World Health Organisation (WHO) which reports that 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, which is statistically the world’s highest in percentage terms. In terms of the percentage of women who use such products within our ECOWAS region, Nigeria is trailed by 59% in Togo and 27% in Senegal.


My gentle readers, please, I do not mean to offend anyone. Nor do I wish to place myself as judge over anyone. We are free citizens of this country and we can with our body as we please. I write out of love, not spite. It has been medically proven that bleaching and skin-lightening products are hazardous to those who use them. Most of the products contain, principally, hydroquinone, which has antioxidant properties that can lighten the skin. Other popular products in use contain such chemicals as kojic acid, which has the capacity to inhibit melanin production in the skin. Another chemical in popular use is arbutin, which works in the same manner as Kojic acid in inhibiting melanin. Yet another is Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA), an ingredient which is able to penetrate and exfoliate the skin because of its molecular size. I was deeply disturbed when a woman confided to me that, in their desperate quest to become ‘yellow’, some women would purchase gallons of bleach used for laundry. They would pour the thing into a large bath, add water and go into it, screaming with pain for minutes, until their skin actually does change colour. What a horror!


Many of these products are associated with various forms of cancers, renal failures and a catalogue of dermatological maladies. Some would recall the pathetic case of our former First Lady, Dame Stella Obasanjo. She was born a fair woman. But she was not content to be so. She needed to supplement her fairness with skin-lightening products. Before her sixtieth birthday she decided to go to Marbella, Spain, for a tummy tuck surgery. Unfortunately for her, the chemicals had damaged her skin to the extent that the skin would not heal. The ensuing abscess killed the poor woman before her time. It was not curiosity that killed the cat; it was vanity. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher!


I must not give the impression that only Africans and guilty of this problem. The craze to become white is also an obsession in India. Caste, wealth and class are also reflected on the perception of how ‘white’ a person is. It has been recently reported that an Indian company is offering a new product to women that promises to turn their intimate part ‘white’. The product has been pitched with the promise that having a ‘white’ private part would make them ‘more desirable’ as women. A British journalist reportedly asked as some Nigerian women if such a product would sell here. They were said to have “replied with raucous laughter”.


We need a new campaign against this new wave of yellow fever epidemic. Fela’s work is far from finished. We should ban these products from coming to Nigeria. We could save billions of dollars in scarce foreign exchange. We should also launch a mass campaign to educate everyone on the dangers of using these hazardous chemicals in the name of beauty treatment. I feel sick when I meet some of the people. You will see a yellow face while the neck and knuckles are as dark as those of a boar constrictor. “Fanta face, coca cola legs”, is how someone described it. Whenever they pass you, they are followed by an odorous stench – the smell of death.


Nollywood kindly take note. Minister of Women Affairs, kindly take note. The beauty pageantry promoters must also take note. The advertising industry must take note. Doctors, teachers, parents, priests and imams must all take note. Let us go back to our roots. Let us proclaim from the rooftops that truly BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. We must teach our children to proclaim with King Solomon, who was a black man: “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon”.

Obadiah Mailafia