Disclaimer: This is not a light read. I have not written this intending to entertain the reader.
This is the story of my life, one that is replete with dark, unimaginable secrets.
I had never thought of opening up in front of strangers, but certain events happening across the world have inspired me, given me a ray of hope. You might find certain parts of this revelation to be disturbing, so I would advise you to proceed with caution.
Black lives matter. All lives matter…. These protests have taken the world by storm. Inspiring and much needed, you say? I feel it doesn’t matter! Don’t dismiss me as a racist or a pessimist, for I am neither of those. I am not selfish either; I feel their pain but I am also feeling cheated as these protests will not have any meaningful impact on my life.
Before I lay my life open, threadbare, in front of you; I have a request. It would mean a lot to me if you read with an open heart and not judge me and my family.
I am Olufunke Bidinia Mombustatsa, a young Tanzanian girl. (This borrowed name is the only lie here. I cannot reveal my identity, as it would prove fatal for us)
I am unlike any other ten-year-olds you might have ever known. I hail from an obscure village, Shinyanga. You might not have heard of my village, but you would be familiar with my country. What do you associate my country with? The majestic Big Five*? I am sure many of you would have enjoyed the safaris cruising through the enchanting jungles. The pristine beaches of Zanzibar would have welcomed you with open arms and you would have frolicked on her stunning sands. A climb up the majestic Kilimanjaro might have left you breathless, and the view from the top would have made it all worthwhile.
Would you believe that I have never seen these wild animals or jungles despite being born and brought up right in its lap? Would you find it unimaginable that I haven’t ever stepped on the soft sandy beaches of Zanzibar?
I don’t associate Tanzania with any of the lovely things that you do? For me, Tanzania is something else… it is sinister. It is a ruthless killer. This is not a baseless allegation. My life experiences have shaped this belief.
Let me reveal some more facets of my obscure life, so you can know me better.
I have never been out in the sun or played in the rain. Cycling, running, playing are a few of the joys I have never experienced. I am even denied the simple pleasures of enjoying a movie on the gigantic screen or strolling in the park. I might be the only child in this world who has never gone to a birthday party or exchanged gifts with others for Christmas. My life is so wretched that even the doors of school and Church are closed to me.
You wonder why? Oh! I am neither invalid nor bedridden. I have perfectly functional limbs and cognitive capabilities at par with any child of my age. Though, I would like to think my EQ is far higher than most!
The television and WWW, yes, the worldwide web are my only friends. And that’s how I know so much about Tanzania and the rest of the world. My lovely friends help me visualize and imagine every experience, which people like you are fortunate enough to experience in your life. They also guide me in my learning endeavours. Unfortunately, my wazazi* have been of little help in my quest for knowledge.
Do you know why I don’t have any human friends? That’s because I don’t have permission to step out of the house. My wazazi* have kept me confined inside. Just like me, my belongings too never get to see the sunlight. Thus, they ensure our neighbors remain unaware of my existence.
Oh, you feel sad for me? Don’t! For you don’t know me, yet. Once you do, you will realize I hate being pitied.
All right, let me unravel the secret. I have albinism.
You know what that means, right? If you don’t, I am sure my friend Google can help you. I won’t spend my time explaining the scientific meaning, but I will use this opportunity to sensitize you to the life I lead.
It means living a life filled with mockery, abandonment, and even death. The only way to escape all this is to lead the life of a fugitive. I have spent my life so far hiding inside the four walls; in fear and distrust.
Children like me get kidnapped and killed often. My people believe that using albino body parts in rituals can bring them wealth. Charms made with our fingers and toes supposedly bring good luck. Isn’t it shameful that despite being in the 21st century, dehumanizing myths and superstitions rule our lives, forcing people like me to live in hiding? Sadly, it is the only way we can evade attacks, abduction, and even slaughter.
I am sure you would have judged and hated my wazazi* for keeping me in exile. Don’t despise them, please. Being an albino kid is a life fraught with dangers. They are doing their best to ensure they keep their last born out of harm’s way. As a parent, wouldn’t you do your best for the safety of your children?
It was a harrowing day a decade ago when some goons stopped Mama on her way to kaka mkubwa’s* school. She trembled on finding herself surrounded by a group of knife-wielding men. Her worst fears came true as they snatched her precious son. She fought like a tiger but ultimately lost, as those half a dozen men were far more powerful than a lone pregnant woman. Distraught, she fell on the ground, crying helplessly as they took away her firstborn. A frantic search ensued which, unfortunately, ended dismally. It was a devastating moment when they found his limp, dismembered body outside the cemetery.
Does any six-year-old deserve such an inhumane death? No.
Did he commit a crime? No.
Did his death trigger worldwide protests? No.
So what was his fault? He was an albino.
My wazazi were heartbroken and shattered as Kaka’s death created a huge vacuum in their lives. The baby growing inside the womb was their only solace. Unfortunately, this child’s birth didn’t fill their lives with happiness either, rather it brought fear and insecurity. I was born an mbolimbwelu* too.
I am sure they would have prayed for a black child, but they have never loved me less because of my color. They resolved to do their best to keep me safe and alive as long as they could. They have been fairly successful, I would say, for I have been on this planet for over 3000 days!
We three are living a life steeped in guilt. Mama grieves her lost child every day; she has been in mourning for ten years now. I hear her muffled cries at night as she begs him for forgiveness. It pains me as she cries herself to sleep. Not a day goes by when Baba is not sorrowful, he blames himself for not having been with Mama that fateful day. My color fills me with guilt as it burdens my wazazi with the responsibility of ensuring my safety. I wish I was just black. Just a normal kid. Then we too could have led joyful lives, like the rest of you. I cannot recollect a single moment when we have been happy and carefree, the dark evil shadow of fear is always lurking around.
I have vivid memories of a time when I was about 4 years old. I threw a tantrum as I wanted to go out and play with the other children in the street. I couldn’t understand why I had to be inside always. Mama broke down as I cried hysterically. She swooped me in her arms and rocked me, I calmed down as she whispered, ‘you are a special one, my mtoto*. You are a gift from the white fairies, and I promised them to keep you safe forever. If you go out, the devil will snatch you from me’ I never asked mama to let me go out again, for a long time. The fear of being caught by the devil was enough to silence me.
I was around 7 years old when one day we woke up to our neighbor’s loud wailing. Baba warned me against coming near the window and rushed outside. He had never panicked like that ever before. It was a scary moment for me, but Mama quickly distracted me with crayons. My wazazi didn’t tell me anything, but being a curious kid, I eavesdropped on their hushed conversations. Our neighbor’s five-year-old daughter, Pidida, was missing. Her uncle had kidnapped the sleeping child. Sadly, he valued her body parts more than her life. Terrified, I started crying and wet the bed.
That was our last day in that locality. The next morning we moved to the outskirts of the village. ‘A secluded house will keep her safe’ said Baba. Though we left our people and community behind, our fears came clinging on to us, and I continued living in oblivion.
Unlike other families, we invite no one home. Mama and Baba don’t visit anybody either. We have no friends, only a few relatives. Except for my grandparents and two uncles, no one knows about my existence. My wazazi are not unsocial, they just don’t trust anybody! They cut themselves off from others, for the sake of my safety. I am grateful for their sacrifices as they have given me a chance to live, unlike many parents who succumb to societal pressure and get rid of albino babies as soon as they are born. It is a belief that we are cursed beings who bring misfortunes to a family.
A few months ago, there was a tremendous uproar over the discovery of an abandoned albino’s body in the fields. After chopping off her breasts, her killers left her to bleed and die. I shivered as the newsreader announced, impassively, that no family members had claimed the decapitated body. Mama sniffled and switched off the TV before I could watch more. I had seen enough already. What a horrible way to die! That night I prayed for her to rest in peace.
Her death shook me, as she was almost my age. I know the same fate awaits me. It is only a question of when…
Recently, I convinced Baba to take me out; I wanted to see the outside world at least once before something untoward happens to me. Mama was aghast and cried in fear, but it was my birthday wish and Baba could not refuse. Taking advantage of the darkness of the night, we slyly slipped out of the house. My heart was pounding as Baba started the pickup truck. The roar of the engine was music to my ears.
I couldn’t see the surroundings as I squatted on the floor, huddled under thick sheets, but Mama sat next to me holding my hand and described everything. We passed by the village church, school, granny’s house, and the fish market. Mama became my eyes. As she described every place we passed by, I felt like I was seeing them in real. The chilly breeze was fresh and magical. Watching the inky sky blanketed by the twinkling stars was far more beautiful than I had visualized. I was star-struck! I had taken the first enormous risk in my life. I had smelt freedom and experienced happiness for the first time, ever.
It was a grim day when an early morning phone call shook Baba. Death had snatched my 11-year-old albino cousin, Idiko. They had found his mutilated body thrown under the thorny bushes. Someone had kidnapped him while he had been playing football with his friends. ‘It was a gory sight’ I heard Baba’s somber whisper to Mama. His attackers had used a saw to hack his legs and hands. His ears were missing too. Unable to bear the trauma, his mother had jumped into the well. As I prayed for his soul that night, I expressed gratitude for being alive too. It is worth being in exile, as it is the only way I am safe.
The root cause of our miseries lies in the illogical belief that our body parts harness magical powers, ironic, isn’t it? If we had magical powers, don’t you think we would have used them to cure ourselves first rather than leading such miserable lives!
Sometimes, I wonder, wouldn’t it be nicer if I just die? I could end all this suffering and find peace. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. For people like me, there is no peace, ever.
The irrational beliefs surrounding us don’t leave us even after death. Some believe we are not humans but demons who would just disappear, so they deny us even a decent burial. For others, our only value is monetary and they believe we have gold in our bones. So after leading a horrific life, as the grieving families lay our bodies to rest, our soul trembles, as those greedy humans looking for precious gold slander our graves.
While the death of an African American has horrified millions and they are staging Black Lives Matter protests across the world, I wonder why there is never an outrage over our deaths. So many of us have been mutilated and killed over the years and yet there is no uproar. We are fighting prejudices against the color of our skin, despite being amidst our people.
I didn’t wish to be born like this, but I have accepted myself despite these challenges. The least I deserve is to live a life of dignity.
Why is my life worse than that of a caged animal?
Why are acceptance and Love denied to me? Is my color my fault?
When I look in the mirror, all I see is a sad child who wants to be happy. Is it too much to wish for? I too dream of going to school and learning from actual teachers. I wish to have friends and play with them, instead of stealthily watching other children at play. I want to experience the simple joys of eating an ice lolly while lazing on the beach instead of imagining it. I want the liberty to laugh boisterously, wail to my hearts’ content, and talk noisily. I wish to live a normal life, like you.
I wish for the day when a knock on the door doesn’t send shivers down my spine. I want to open the door and greet the visitor instead of rushing to my hiding spot. Is it a lot to ask for?
I hope for a day when my parents can live happily, without fear, without guilt.
Next time you march holding a placard which says ‘All lives matter’, I sincerely hope and pray you will think of me and my fellow people suffering from albinism. This disease is a part of us, why has it become our identity?
Hopefully, one day, my life would matter too.
- Big Five–Wild animals found in African jungles, mainly elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino.
- Albinism – A disorder marked by an absence of pigment in the skin, hair, and eye, leading to white skin and hair
- Kaka mkubwa–elder brother (Swahili)
- Wazazi–Parents (Swahili)
- Mbolimbwelu – white goat (Swahili slur for Albinos)
- Mtoto–child (Swahili)
This story received 1st Runner Up award at Penmancy