Kenya fights deadly stigma with albino pageant

Nairobi — In many parts of Africa albinos are stigmatised or hunted for their body parts, but for one night in Kenya those with the condition took to the catwalk to show off their unique beauty.

Billed by organisers as the first pageant of its kind, young albino men and women on Friday competed for the title of Miss and Mr Albinism Kenya.

“People with albinism are not seen as beautiful and handsome so it is very rare to find those two words in the same sentence,” said Isaac Mwaura, Kenya’s first albino lawmaker and organiser of the pageant.

“We want to show our talent, we want to confront stigma and discrimination, we want to change our narrative to show that actually, yes it is possible to have people with albinism who are beautiful, who are confident,” he told AFP.

Albinism is a genetic condition that results in a reduction of pigment in the hair, skin, and eyes, and can also affect vision.

“In Africa people are dark. When someone white is brought into the family, when a mother delivers a baby with albinism they say it is a curse,” said Nancy Njeri Kariuki (24) from central Kenya, who took part in the pageant.

“There are a lot of challenges, even your fellow children when you are young they are so scared of you.”

However Kariuki, with a brown wig and sparkling green eyes, bursts with confidence as she struts her stuff on the stage in front of a crowd including Deputy President William Ruto. Contestants dress up as their chosen profession —fisherman, cook, a female rugby player and a soldier – in one segment to highlight that they too can be part of the workforce.

Educating and finding employment for people with albinism is still a massive challenge, says Mwaura.

Sarah Wanjohi (21) who dresses up as what she is, the only albino skateboarder she knows — wants Kenyans to learn “that we are beautiful . . . we can love, we can catwalk . . . we can do what we are perceived not to do. It has been very hard for me, you know skateboarders don’t wear heels and stuff.”

The models, chosen in a countrywide selection process, were put through a gruelling bootcamp to teach them how to walk and put on a show.

Michael Ogochi (21) said the process worked wonders for his self-confidence. “Growing up for me was a tough journey since everyone calls you a name and no one wants to be with you. You need to work on your self-esteem and grow a tough skin.”

While albino sufferers’ pale complexion and features such as white eyelashes and red-toned hair can lead to rejection from their communities, in recent years there has been a rise in albino models in fashion magazines and on catwalks.

However in eastern and southern African countries, such as Tanzania, Malawi, Burundi and Mozambique, it is more often grisly attacks on albinos, including children, that make headlines.

Albinos are kidnapped and their body parts hacked off for use as charms and magical potions in the belief that they bring wealth and good luck.

While such attacks are rare in Kenya, Mwaura said his Albinism Society of Kenya has had to step in and rescue children and adults from ritual killings, and one albino died in an attack last year.

At one point in the pageant, the rowdy crowd falls silent as Mwaura includes a bloody picture of albino body parts from a Tanzanian attack in a slideshow.

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