Kenya’s First Albino Beauty Pageant Challenges A Deadly Stigma
An albino person’s body can fetch $75,000 on the black market.
Lucianah Nyawira’s father kicked her out of the house when she was born mzunga, or “white.” Lucianah is an albino, and beautiful: Now 19, she recently landed a modeling contract in Paris?—?but never got any respect at beauty pageants in her native Kenya.
“The judges told me, ‘You can never be a model,’” Lucianah told the Nigeria-based news site SitiBe.
The world’s first beauty pageant for albinos hopes to change that. The inaugural contest, held in Kenya in October, featured 10 women and 10 men, all albinos, striding the catwalks. For many contestants, it was the first time they’d been viewed in a positive light.
“This is my dream come true,” one male contestant, John Ngatia, told SitiBe.
Albinism is a hereditary genetic condition that affects children regardless what skin color their parents may have. Albinos have no pigmentation whatsoever in their skin, eyes and hair. About 1 in 17,000 Americans are born albinos. It’s much more common in Africa?—?about 1 in 2,000.
The beauty pageant was organized by Isaac Mwaura, Kenya’s first parliamentarian with albinism. Mwaura told Reuters he was doing it because African women with albinism were having trouble getting married.
Because pigmentation is what protects us from the sun’s rays, albinos are particularly susceptible to skin cancer: the disease kills most albinos before they turn 40. Many also suffer poor eyesight.
Worse, albinos across Africa suffer discrimination. Sometimes their parents just kill them. They may refuse to let albinos attend school, thinking they won’t be able to find a job afterwards. If they do attend school, they’re bullied.
Across Africa, albinos are referred to by derogatory terms. In Tanzania, for example, they’re also called nguruwe, which means “pig.”
A more chilling slur for albinos is pesa, a Swahili word for money. That’s because across Africa, albino body parts are thought to bring health, wealth and power. Some people think drinking albino blood will give them magical powers, others believe the ash of a burned albino hand can cure strokes. Still others think an albino’s bones will help them find gold.
As a result, people often kill albinos, or cut off their arms or hands. The United Nations reports that a full albino body can fetch as much as $75,000.
Criminals in 26 African countries attacked albinos more than 600 times in the past 10 years, according to the UN. Malawi reported 18 killings from November 2014 to May 2016. The UN says attacks go up during election campaigns as candidates seek albino body parts to improve their chances of victory.
Tanzania outlawed witchcraft in 2014 to stop the attacks. Malawi announced a plan to protect albinos in 2015. The UN is raising money online to buy door locks for albinos in rural areas. But many African countries have done nothing to stop the violence and discrimination.
Private efforts have met with some success. “The Golden Voice of Africa,” Salif Keita is a Grammy-nominated singer from Mali. His father disowned him for being an albino. Keita established a foundation to fight discrimination and provide health care for albinos. He’s also published a children’s book to show kids that albinos aren’t really different.
“Albinos need to be loved, and seen as normal people,” Keita told the National newspaper.
With laws being passed slowly, or not at all, ensuring albino rights will take time. After all, the continent faces other, competing issues that aren’t complicated by superstitious belief?—?and this peculiarly African form of racism.