Fighting to belong

Farai Mutsaka

HARARE (AP) – Each time Yvonne Gumbo, who has albinism, and her friends get together for a picture, she insists on being in the centre.

“I tell them I make the picture beautiful because I am special,” she told The Associated Press at her home in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, recently.

“I have two different colours while they have one. I am black. I am white,” she said, smiling. “Who else can make the picture more beautiful?”

It’s the 22-year old’s way of fighting back against the deeply rooted myths and prejudices faced by people with albinism in Zimbabwe, where they are often ostracised, laughed at and pejoratively referred to as “white people” among other names.

While much of the world is engrossed in the race-related outrage over the death of George Floyd in the United States (US), Zimbabwe’s young people with albinism are fighting prejudices against the colour of their skin.

Joyce Muchenje places her hands on a wall and that of her three children, who all have albinism, outside their family home in Chitungwiza on the outskirts of Harare. PHOTOS: AP
With the border trade halted, Mutenje has run out of money to get the skin cream for her children

In nearby Malawi and Tanzania, many people with albinism are killed because their body parts are thought to bring good luck. No such killings have been reported in Zimbabwe, which has about 70,000 people with albinism out of a population of about 15 million.

But prejudices remain deep-rooted.

Some people stare, whistle or verbally abuse those with albinism when they walk along the streets. Some believe sleeping with them can cure HIV. Many others treat albinism as a curse.

But for Gumbo, none of that bothers her anymore. These days she carries an aura of confidence she admits was absent during the first two decades of her life.

“I only started living my life two years ago. The stigma had gotten to me that most times. I felt I wasn’t as human as the others. I am now making up for those lost years,” Gumbo said. She said she only started making friends after she finished school, where she had been treated as an outcast by fellow students and even teachers.

“I was very quiet and afraid. Now my former classmates are shocked at how talkative and assertive I have become,” she said, attributing her newfound confidence to her membership in support groups.

Such programmes include an annual Miss Albinism and Mr Albinism pageant, although it has been put on hold this year due to coronavirus restrictions.

“We have to focus on success, not pity,” said Brenda Mudzimu, founder of the Miss Albinism Trust, which runs the pageant. The trust also offers career guidance workshops and support sessions for people with albinism.

“Right now we have albinos who are doctors, nurses… success stories on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus. We also have to talk about them to inspire others,” Mudzimu said.

However, the economic downturn caused by the restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19 means that many people with albinism are struggling to put food on the table, let alone afford essential items such as sunscreen, skin lotions and other medications.

The Zimbabwe Albino Association, a representative group, has been lobbying parliament to enact a law making it mandatory for government to provide free skin lotions to people with albinism.

Joyce Mutenje used to provide for her three children, who all have albinism, by washing laundry and household cleaning for traders at a busy border town before the lockdown. But now the border trade has stopped and Mutenje has run out of money to get skin cream for her children.

“This is all that’s left,” said Mutenje, holding two small tubes of lotion. She hopes to make it last for two weeks by telling the children to put the lotion only on their faces.

Obey Machona, a 21-year-old media studies student at the University of Zimbabwe, said he is an advocate of “taking back control of our lives as albinos”. He said he used to support himself and his unemployed mother with part-time photography jobs. Now those gigs have dried up due to the lockdown and items such as skin lotion have become a luxury.

“What good is skin lotion when the stomach is empty?” he asked.