Life in the shadows: Albinism in Africa (Part I) By Stephen Robinson

The Project

The modern-day social issue of living with albinism in Africa is, today, probably much as it has been for centuries – an issue steeped in deep-rooted superstition and mythology.

The surprisingly limited media coverage of the persecution of Africans with albinism is centred on the news-grabbing extremes of their physical abuse, mutilation and even murder. But such coverage makes little mention of the adversities they face every day – including stigma & extreme discrimination, isolation & exclusion, serious health & vision problems, and cruel public ridicule. And all this every day, day-in, day-out.

So this story is about the ordinary: the ordinary daily lives of African people with albinism, a story that few of us know about. Accompanying the photographs are the subjects’ own stories of their daily lives, in their own words. Far more telling than anything I could write.

The Photography

“This project came about as a result of, very occasionally, seeing people with albinism walking on the African streets, usually alone and under the shade a large umbrella. Who are these people; what are their lives like; how and where do they live?

The research, investigation and photo work has taken about 6 months so far, mostly full time. First, the people had to found and contacted, talked to and their stories & involvement requested. I had thought I would find a few people with albinism and make a small reportage. But then it was shocking to discover just how prevalent albinism is in Africa – and how very many people there are hiding away as a result of the persecution and health risks that come with their condition. So the project was suddenly much bigger.

The work is accompanied by the subjects’ own words – to tell their story and bring attention to what is a major, but tragically ignored, human rights issue. Very few people know about this, and when they hear it, they are usually horrified that it exists in this 21st century. Strangely, the mainstream media & press give very little coverage to what is a very serious human rights issue.

Of course all serious photography is about light and how it’s used. But the subject matter of this project much more so. The subjects’ lives and daily routines are dictated by light and shadow, by being outside or inside and by conscious decisions about moving from one to the other. As the work progressed, use of the same environmental motifs came about – strong light and deep shadow, doorways, windows, curtains, alley-ways, and the like.

This is all available-light photography done at and in the subjects’ homes and work places. Waiting to be ignored and trusted before making the shots was an important element. Also using only the minimum of equipment – a Leica M9-P and only two lenses, 50mm and 35mm. The photographs are un-cropped, full frame, showing what I saw through the viewfinder. I think things are more real that way.”

Subjects’ Stories

Cloud

From an interview (translated), Cloud’s mother says:

“Cloud was born in 2002 as an albino and then the father denied that he cannot have such kind of a baby and he divorced me for having an albino child. So Cloud and me were being kept by grandmother and grandfather. 

When he was four years he started having sores like herpes zoster and became worse that we cannot walk with him. He was having ringworms, sores all over his face. And a sight problem – the eyes were itching and he developed short sight. 

Members of the family were scared of him because they say when he comes to their house the whole food will disappear and at the farm crops cannot grow because of him. People were laughing at him and calling names. They were stoning him saying he’s a curse.

When he started school he was being kept alone – they didn’t want him be associated with others. When they saw him they were spitting saliva on their shirts thinking they can turn into albino if they don’t spit on their shirts. He stopped school because he was being laughed at. This is the fifth time to go back to school. This time he is used to being in school and he has accepted the whole situation and the people are used to see him too…”.

Patience

Patience’s parents, Oscar and Agnes write:

“Patience was born…as an albino. It was something strange because it was our first time to see a person in this race especially our family both sides.

She is being laughed by people that she’s a doll. People were saying that she’ll not die. People spit saliver [saliva] on their shirts when they see her for them not to be infected with albinism.

Albinos will be used for money…especially the hair and the nails and we’re scared of it.

Family members were saying she’s a curse to the family. She’s being discriminated by the community at large. People cannot eat with her because they say she stinks and is gross.”

Daudi

From an interview (translated), Daudi’s mother Anne says:

“Moses [Daudi] was born…an albino. I was afraid because it was my first time to see an albino child and I was just operated (Caesar). The father was surprised and he said he was not responsible for the child because he was born with albinism and then he realised that the child was not the first one – he has some albinos members in the family, so at last he accepted. 

People were laughing, mocking and some were teasing me because of my albino child. Some were calling him a doll. Some were saying he’s a ghost and some were saying my son is cursed. So it was very difficult for me to associate with the people because they were laughing at me as the mother to an albino.

The problem is that I was ignorant, I didn’t know how to take care of him. The skin burns and poor sight.

At school it was strange to the teachers and to the pupils. His fellow pupils were spitting saliva on their shorts and calling him different names. And where sight is concerned, there is a problem – he cannot write if he is sitting at the back. 

There is a skin problem. It’s because he’s lacking sun screen lotions.”

Albert

Albert writes:

“Since I was born everybody in the family was happy to have an Albino in the family. In 2003 my dad died. I was just left with my Mum and my young sister. I have survived and tried to make my life better.

I was thinking that being an Albino is like being a slave because since when I was born people have just been laughing at me. I don’t know why? Because I was even asking myself some questions like Why did God created me in this way? I was thinking that maybe my great-grandparents committed something very bad or maybe sin which is unforgivable.

I was finding myself in a way like being segregated because of my Albinism skin. Even something which I can do they always segregate me from doing it. I have been facing challenges and they are many so I have at least explained a little bit about my life history….

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to explain a little bit about my LIFE HISTORY.”

Anita

From an interview (translated), Anita says:

“I was born as an albino as the last born in the family. The family accepted me and raised me as any other child and had no problem.

I was laughed at at school by other pupils until I stopped in Grade 6 …. People laugh at me like I am totally different from the rest, passing comments and myths.”

Matilda

From an interview (translated), Matilda says:

“..I was born in a family of 5 albinos. It wasn’t easy being an albino but mum and dad came to accept the whole situation. I am the third born with albinism but the first one has died.

The problem I’ve been having from childhood is the eyes. I’ve been having short sight especially when I was at school or when I’m reading.

Challenges are being stigmatized, people laughing at you, mocking, spitting saliva…. They call me names like doll and ghost.

I find it a challenge because I cannot be employed and I can’t marry. I can’t rent a house because of what people believe – myths and misconceptions they have about albinos.

When I am at the market some people will not buy my stuff, saying that my stuff cannot be eaten by a human because it is bought from a pig.”

Tracy

Tracy writes:

“I was born in the year of 1996 on the first of January… My Father died long time ago when I was at the age of six months and my mother died after six months when daddy died. Since that time I have been living with my old grandmother up to now.

The main problem is my own family did not accept me the way I was born. [My] sight is poor. [My] skin gets damaged easily. [I have lack of] material e.g. sunscreen, clothes which can help me to cover my body. There [are] so many problems which I pass on I just cannot manage to write them down. 

The most [biggest] challenges that I face is: my own family discriminates me that I am not normal human being. I cannot do anything in life, I am a witch, just because I am a albino I have brought poverty into the family. 

People scare me [People are scared] that when I am with them, they can be [become] like me. Some says that I am not going to die but I will just desapear (disappear)…so they chase me from the house [so] that I have to look for my own. 

I went to look for a job. The manager said we cannot employ people who are like this, cause [because] you can chase our customers. People say a lot.”

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The online exhibition of the work done to date on the project can be seen at: http://www.wildfotoafrica.com/index.php/new-work/life-in-the-shadows-exhibition

In the first 3 weeks since the Life in the Shadows exhibition was published online, the visitor numbers have totalled over 50,000 from 105 countries.

About Stephen Robinson:

Stephen Robinson is a professional photographer operating from his Zambia base. He was born in England in 1952 and moved to Africa in 1975. He makes his living doing assignment photography for commercial, mining, agricultural, environmental project and donor-aid project clients. This work extends beyond just photography to include his production of photo-based marketing and communication materials. His aerial work and his specially-developed panoramic landscape techniques are used to illustrate the ‘big picture’ scale and scope of his larger clients’ projects and investments. Such work includes the production of custom made, fine art corporate photobooks. 

To know more about Stephen Robinson, please visit the Spirit of the Land and Wild Foto Africa websites.

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