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Opinions of Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Columnist: Akosa, Agyeman Badu

Skin Bleaching

By Prof. Agyeman Badu Akosa, Former Director Gen

The good Lord in his wisdom created the country Ghana and placed it between latitudes 5-15 N and placed in it black people with the right skin type to survive the harshness of the sun in that region. The weather in Ghana is rarely the source of conversation as you would get in the more northern countries. The temperatures are usually 33 / 23º* and 36 / 26º* during the day and night for the southern and northern areas of the country respectively. I appreciate I am being simplistic but it is only in comparison with countries like Britain in which you can have all types of weathers within one day. In Ghana the sun is up by 6.00 am and sets by 6.00 pm. There is therefore twelve (12) hours a day of glorious sunshine with all its energies pounding in on us. All that energy could be stored as solar energy to power almost all domestic activity but we do not unfortunately.

There are six skin types ranging from the very sensitive which burn easily and never tan to the insensitive, never burns and is deeply pigmented. The black pigment melanin which gives the skin the colour absorbs the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun and protects it.

The sun rays may be beneficial in producing Vitamin D which is very necessary in the body’s use of calcium and ensures the strength of our bones but more importantly, the rays are dangerous. The ultraviolet rays in a sensitive skin type causes premature ageing evident by wrinkling, caused by the destruction of the elastic fibres which maintains the integrity of the skin, thinning of the skin and white patches from increased keratin. The skin gets burnt and painful and eventually results in increased skin cancers.

People from Ireland, Wales and Scotland usually have skin type 1 and have very sensitive skins. A lot of the initial immigrants to Australia and New Zealand were such people. In view of the fact that their skin type was not protective against the harsh sun rays in Australia and New Zealand, a lot of them ended with solar damage and skin cancers. Australia has the greatest number of skin cancers in the world and has over the past 15 years launched a public health campaign against unprotected sun exposure.

Ghana’s geographical position as the country closest to the real centre of the world (the meeting point between the Greenwich Meridian and the Equator) means we receive the sun rays almost perpendicular to the earth’s surface unlike countries beyond latitude 30 N or S where the rays are oblique. The sun rays passes through the protective ozone layer which filters out some of the ultraviolet light. That is why we should all worry when Scientist tell us the ozone layer is being depleted.

50% of the sun rays come directly onto us and the remaining 50% come via reflections through clouds, dust, surface waters and soil. The closer one is to the equator as Ghana is, the greater the burning effect of the sun’s rays. In countries between latitudes 40 and 60, mostly in the northern hermisphere, most of the sun rays are filtered obliquely through layers of cloud or fog. In the industrialised north, in addition, the thick layers of smog an admixture of gases and particulate matter also filters out some more of the rays. The sun in such areas such as Europe, Russia and Canada is not as harsh as it is in Ghana.

These areas are best suited to the fair skinned races. With the limited sunshine and diminished burning effect, the fair skin has learnt over many centuries to limit its pigment in order to absorb as much sunshine as possible. Many, living in those countries selectively shed their pigment in order to be able to absorb as much sunshine as possible to give them sufficient quantities of Vitamin D. This underlies why Ghanaians who travel and live out for a longer period of time become relatively fairer. It is to ensure that your pigment does not absorb all the sun’s rays but some is available to produce the desired amount of Vitamin D needed to maintain the bones.

The suns damage to the skin is cumulative, progressive and in the main irreversible, and the effects are recorded in the skin forever. The same amount of sun exposure is far damaging to a child. In all the hot parts of the world inhabited by Caucasians such as South Africa, California, South America and Australia and New Zealand, the whites have an excess of skin damage and cancers compared to the natives like the blacks in South Africa, Aborigines in Australia and Papua New Guinea and the native Indians of the Americas. It is because they have a skin type suitable for the environment created for them by the Lord.

What happens during skin bleaching? The protective melanin pigment which absorbs the harmful rays of the sun is removed by all sorts of processes using creams containing varying strengths of hydroquinones, steroids and other chemicals. Once the pigment is removed and this is a continual process the person’s skin colour becomes lighter. Because the process does not remove the cells that make the pigment but removes only the pigment, the application has got to be daily. Both white and black skins have the same number of melanocytes which are the cells that produce the pigment melanin. The difference is in the amount of melanin produced.

Africans and some black Asians are notorious for perpetuating on themselves this degrading process of using an admixture of creams, soaps, other chemicals including cement water to change their God given colour chosen for them because of the environment they were created in. I am told that in some countries machines are used to facilitate the process. So why will a God fearing person who believes that they were created by God in his own image attempt to commit such a heinous biblical crime and think nothing of it? Is it pleasing in the eyes of the Lord? I do not think so. I have wondered what the basis of the decision to change skin colour is and many people have given reasons why they do it. All the reasons appear rather wishy-washy.

It is centred on vanity. In South Africa however, during the apartheid era some of the blacks did that in order to be classified differently. Since the regime was based on the colour of ones skin, the fairer you were the better you were treated. Many blacks and coloured persons over a period of time systematically tried to change their skin colour. I do not know what proportion succeeded in changing their status but it is the country with the greatest magnitude of skin bleaching. In Ghana the reasons adduced are multiple but underlying it all is the belief that Ghanaian men like fairer women and therefore the fairer you are the greater your chances of winning a partner. So what about the men who bleach? Is it because Ghanaian women also like fairer men? The bounds of possibilities go on and on and on.

Bleaching leaves a body odour which is anything from stale, mousy to fishy. Why would anyman want a fair lady with a body odour? In Ghanaian folklore too, it is stated that a fairlady is good for a girlfriend but not as a wife. The contradictions abound.

The size of the problem in Ghana is enormous and it cuts across age groups, sex and class or professional groupings. I know the enormity of the problem in Ghana does not compare with some of our neighbours but it is still alarming. Anecdotal evidence indicates that as many as 50 -60% of adult Ghanaian women have at one time or other bleached or used creams with the view to bleaching or bleached unknowingly. About 30% are currently actively bleaching. For men it is estimated that 5% have bleached before or are still in the process. What is most worrying is the proportion of adolescents in and out of school who are bleaching. It is a well known phenomenon that if a mother bleaches then she will encourage the daughter to do so or will mix the various types of soaps and creams for the daughter to take to school.

Every identifiable group of persons are represented in the guilty group. Professional people including lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers etc , business persons, charismatic and non charismatic pastors or reverends, media people, traders, fishermen, chiefs and the worst offenders, queenmothers. In the latter group particularly in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, if you are nominated and installed as a queenmother you must lighten your skin before the enstoolment. It brightens you up they say, in much the same way as putting on the light in a room. The list is by no means exhaustive but it includes a lot of policy people, role models and people who through the power of television are on our screens and in our homes all the time. What message are all these people conveying to the God they purport to serve, and to society at large? That though we serve you and praise your holy name, we believe you were wrong in giving us this skin colour and we have therefore taken the liberty of changing or modifying it to suit ourselves. In a way it is like those who permanently emigrate and forget their roots.

It is however, the Pastors and Reverends who bleach their skins that I worry about. Do they start and go for confession and then continue or do they ask for absolution? What really leads all these men and women to go down this road which is not without headaches and heart aches? There are many unanswered questions.

Once the process of bleaching starts the damage to the skin by the sun’s rays also start. The black pigment which absorbs the ultraviolet rays having been removed, allows more of the sun’s rays than usual to enter the depths of the skin. The elastic fibres underneath the lining of the skin that ensure the tautness of the skin begin to degenerate and get destroyed. It leads to wrinkling and thinning of the skin. The black pigment removed by the process of bleaching drops off the skin epidermis (the skin lining) into the dermis and together with the destroyed elastic tissue gives a greyish hue to the skin. It becomes more apparent when they attempt to stop. The sun also leads to irregular colouring of the skin, itself a reason for using the numerous skin lightening cosmetic creams. For bleaching to work, as soon as you start, you must avoid the sun like a plague but who can do that. It is worth remembering that the younger the skin, the more harmful the effects of the sun and therefore to start bleaching early on in life is to commit to a later life of misery.

The medical consequences of bleaching are many and include increased pigmentation over the bony prominences such as the forehead, cheeks, nose, lower jaws and the sides of the neck popular referred to in Akan as ‘ne nso oben’ meaning who asked you to. In addition to the increased colouring, they develop small black papules usually centred on the base of hairs, thinning of the skin and patches made of deposition of some material in the dermis of the skin. In patients who use steroid based creams such as betnovate and dermovate, it leads to increased thinning of the skin and stretch marks. This is now a common site at funerals and not surprisingly in younger women who have not even started having children. How this eventually affects their childbirth status will need to be examined. The ladies sew their kaba to reveal more and more bare skin and reveal the stretch marks. There are certain parts of the body where bleaching is difficult, the lips, hands particularly the knuckles, feet, knees, ankles and elbows. These areas always reveal the secret.

Skin cancers are rare among blacks because of the protection from the black (melanin) pigment. The first case of a type of skin cancer commonly found among white people who live in sunny areas was reported in a middle aged woman who had bleached over a long period of time. The cancer was an aggressive type and had killed the woman in no time. The rest of the woman’s skin could only be described as ‘crocodile skin’. It was as hard as ‘ wele’ and had cracks oozing out offensive fluid. What a way to die. In this case the iniquities were not to be visited on any generations but on the perpetrator. ‘Ne nso oben’ signifies the trouble bleachers go through in later life. They wished they had not begun and end up with all the disguises including what has been dubbed vanishing creams. What erroneously started as a beautifying process predictably ends up messing the most obvious part of the body, the face.

The cost of bleaching one’s skin is prohibitive. The cost of soaps, creams and time wasted, sitting and waiting for the soaps and creams to take their toll, over the many years are enormous and only to end up with years of repair work which will not and cannot reverse the damage. Remember, the effects of the sun are cumulative, progressive and irreversible. Just imagine what the money could have been spent on. Buying insecticide treated nets for all the children in the house to prevent them from getting malaria, books for the children to read and acquire knowledge, providing the house with well nourished and balanced diets to prevent malnutrition and many more. In the end the money gets wasted.

As in South Africa where most people started off wanting to change their status by changing the colour of their skin, bleaching fundamentally is a lack of self confidence and self worth. The African after several years of post colonialism cannot exorcise the indignation and wants to be white. Our music, language and folklore are replete with lyrics that extol the virtue of being white. ‘Me broni’, a term of endearment in Akan, made unconsciously but demeaning our blackness, our africanness and our Ghanaianness.

Almost 48 years after independence, we are more reliant on the white man than ever before. Very well educated people in positions of authority meet working class white men and drool over them. The crooks among them are in Ghana doing business not having brought anything to Ghana but have been dubbed investors and facilitated by the Ghana system. The depth of the self doubt is what will make a paramount chief bleach his skin. A man who is supposed to be a repository of wisdom and knowledge and given authority and traditional jurisdiction over his people believes that he is better off if he changes the colour of his skin. As for our queen mothers the least said about them for now the better. It will require a national crusade to shake their psyche.

Ghana has got to rise up and instil in its citizenry, love and respect for what is Ghanaian. That is what I call Ghanaianness- being Ghanaian, respecting Ghanaians, appreciating our problems and contributing to the solution but not to the problem, educating children in Ghana, listening to Ghanaian songs though not exclusively, are all attributes that must make us want to lift Ghana up. We probably need to devise a sliding scale of Ghanaianness almost like assessing your smoothness level, a la Micky Osei Berko and Kwame Sefa Kaye.

Confidence teaching must start in our homes and then to schools and beyond but what if your mother has bleached, your teacher has bleached, your queen mother has bleached, your omanhene has bleached, television presenters have bleached and so has your pastor. All around you is lack of self worth. We live in a country where the tenets of our second National Anthem ‘yen ara ye assasie ni’ does not ring true to our ears. The words must be thought in all schools and in all languages in Ghana. The late Ephraim Amu if he was a catholic will have been canonised on the way to sainthood. He predicted all the things that will lead to the downfall of Ghana and we are living it.

Beauty is more than skin deep. The radiance that shines through an individual and her comportment are all attributes that attest not only to her beauty but also her confidence. Is it that Ghanaian men will ignore everything else for a lighter skin individual with body odour? I do not know of any man who would do that or do I not live in Ghana?.

So what can be done? All schools must recognise the problem and address it. Students must be encouraged not to use the endless list of creams all marketed under very enticing names and their parents must also be made to appreciate the dangers of the practice especially for the young ones. The National Youth Council must take this issue up for discussion. I believe Parliament must make a statement on skin bleaching in recognition of the magnitude of the problem. The National House of Chiefs and the National Commission on Culture must all make pronouncements and follow through with actions to dissuade particularly those in society entrusted with authority, chiefs and queen mothers. Role models including beauty queens and media presenters must be selected on the basis of promoting positive images about ourselves but more importantly the national psyche must change. We must respect and cherish our Ghanaianness. We are what we are because our creator made us so. Anything else will amount to querying his judgement. Will that be an act of faith?

To change your skin colour is to betray your maker and your faith. For in the realms of religion there must be no room for vanity. Bleaching is most certainly not pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.

An anti- skin bleaching campaign must be launched. If you feel passionate about it and can contribute time, effort and in kind please contact Mr Kofi Amponsah Dadzie of HEALTHY- GHANA.


Prof. Agyeman Badu Akosa

Director General-GHS