THE zeal to look beautiful and a colonial mentality that white skin is superior is fast driving Tanzanian women into their graves as they risk their lives by using skin lightening creams that in the end turn lethal.
The problem is not only confined to Tanzania as selling of whitening creams is a lucrative business in Africa worth millions of US dollars a year. In some countries that allow the use of these lethal substances, shelves in pharmacies are stacked high with lotions, creams and soaps all promising to make women whiter and supposedly more beautiful.
But, in countries like Tanzania, where the use and importation of skin lightening creams is banned, the business is thriving as these dangerous creams are smuggled into the country while dealers on the other hand are discrete.
So many women in Tanzania are regretting the days they laid hands on these creams as instead of attracting men, they are now scaring them away as they look like monsters with a lot of scratch marks and black dots on their skin after getting burnt by the creams. Some of them have been unlucky and had to pay the price the rest of their lives as they contracted skin cancers.
This causes great losses to societies who are forced to spend a lot of money after using these smuggled products. Many Tanzanian women are paying the price of endeavouring to attain a white skin as they are forced to spend more money in seeking medical treatment and corrective surgeries
The Tanzania Food and Drugs Authorities, has for a long time and in vain been fighting the importation of counterfeits and those unsuitable for human use as they are smartly smuggled into the country. This has led the country to suffer a loss of revenue from unpaid taxes.
Apparently, a report released by the Confederation of Tanzanian Industries (CTI ), reveals that the government loses between 450m/- and 900m/- annually in tax evasion by importers of such harmful products.
Skin bleaching creams were first pushed onto the market in the United States, from Asia, for African-American women who were encouraged to keep their skins lightened in an effort to emulate the Caucasian woman, who was put on a pedestal as the ultimate measure of human beauty. Later, the market was expanded to Apartheid South Africa and then onwards to East Africa until it eventually ended up in West Africa where it has taken root, from Senegal to Cameroon.
Asia is arguably the hub and origin of these creams which boasts of a long history stemming back to ancient China and Japan, where the saying "one white covers up three ugliness" was passed through the generations.
A white complexion was seen as noble and aristocratic, especially in Southeast Asia, where the sun was always out. Only those rich enough could afford to stay indoors, while peasants baked in the rice fields.
In their early bid to lighten up, Chinese ground pearl from seashells into powder and swallowed it to whiten their skin, says Chinese university chemical pathology Professor Christopher Lam Wai-kei.
This obsession with whiteness has not faded over time. A survey by Asia Market Intelligence this year revealed that three quarters of Malaysian men thought their partners would be more attractive with lighter complexions.
Today, skin whitening products are available in the form of creams, pills, soaps or lotions. The mechanism of permanent whitening is usually by the breakdown of melanin by enzymes, such as that contained in the droppings of the Japanese bush warbler or reducing agents such as hydroquinone. Most whitening creams also contain a UV block to prevent sun damage to the skin.
The original purpose of skin whitening creams was to treat the problem of uneven pigmentation. Skin may either appear lighter or darker than normal; there may be blotchy, uneven areas, patches of brown to gray discoloration or freckling.
Skin pigmentation disorders occur because the body produces either too much or too little melanin. Melanin is the pigment produced by melanocyte cells. It is triggered by an enzyme called tyrosinase, which creates the colour of skin, eyes, and hair shades.
It is unfortunate, however, that over the years, women have been misusing these creams to enhance their beauty.
But, the sad thing about these skin bleaching creams is the highly potent and toxic chemicals they contain, which are eventually harmful to their users. Most of them contain corticosteroids and hydroquinones, which peel off the outer layers of the skin, exposing it to the harmful rays of the sun.
Bleaching can cause skin cancer and the poorest people are the most at risk, because the cheaper the product, the more dangerous it is. Furthermore, there is suspicion of an increased risk of kidney failure as a result of the mercury contained in some of the products that people use for bleaching.
In Tanzania, women have been urged against ignorant use of these chemicals to bleach their skins following a confirmed case of a woman who died after swallowing tablets to enhance her beauty.
Dr Dominista Kombe, a consultant radiotherapist at Ocean Road Cancer Institute, told a two-day workshop recently that the woman (name withheld) who had taken tablets to bleach her skin, died after her flesh turned into liquid form like ice cream and started dropping off.
This is just but a tip of an iceberg in this country where many women strive to be beautiful. But, it is surprising that despite reports and evidence of women suffering from using these creams, Tanzanian women seem to be undeterred as they continue to crave for white skin. This, therefore, means that more still need to be done to curb the practice.
The Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority has not been taking this increasing social anomaly lightly, they set-up camps at major entry points into the country such as ports to monitor the importation of the products.
“We are soon going to put an end to all this. In fact, we already have measures to stop, once and for all, the importation of these products,” said Raymond Walenga, the TFDA’s acting director for food security recently.
Though the organization is trying to put corrective measures, history has it that most of the efforts to ban either counterfeit or substandard goods in the country has been proved too difficult.
This undoubtedly casts a shadow on the fight against illegal and harmful skin bleaching creams. This shows that governmental measures alone do not necessarily stem the practice. Education, therefore, is vital in changing public opinion in as far as the use of these creams is concerned.
Though this will take time as, for many in Africa, bleaching provides an escape mechanism- the lighter you are, the more attractive and financially secure you must be - it is worth trying.
More, including educating wananchi on the effects of the creams, need to be done if inroads are to be made, in trying to address the situation.
It is high time the government criminalizes the importation and selling of the harmful products before it’s too late. In fact urgent measures need to be taken, failure to which Tanzania will forever be forced to continue paying the price of attaining white skins