And she certainly hasn’t disappointed. Today, Bonnie (24) is a practising pharmacist in Harare; the first albino to graduate from the University of Zimbabwe’s Pharmacy school since it opened almost 40 years ago. I recently sat down with her to get her views on life as an albino woman in Zimbabwe.
Bonnie, were there any family challenges when you were born?
From what I hear from semi-reliable sources, my paternal grandmother took the whole thing quite badly, refusing to have her meal inside the house when I was brought home from the hospital. Poor woman. Hope she didn’t get frostbite sitting outside as I was born in winter.
My maternal grandmother, however, claims she prayed to God and said, “Thank you for giving me such a snow white star which no one else has in my whole neighbourhood.” As far as I can remember, the family I grew up around was just great.
Can you recall your first memory of being aware of being ‘different’ as a child?
I went to two starkly different preschools. The first was a multi-racial school in Masvingo. There were black, Caucasian, mixed race and Asian kids there so I fitted right in. Any issues I had while there had very little, if anything, to do with albinism.
Then when we moved to Bindura I had to go to a different preschool where only black kids went. My physical features intrigued the kids there, especially my hair, so they were always trying to snatch my sunhat off my head. I was very miserable there. That is when I realised I was not like the others.
What have been the challenges (social or emotional) you have had to go through and how have you handled them?
Social and emotional challenges are met by everyone, albinos or not. Mine had a lot to do with other people’s perceptions and my believing that those perceptions were correct. But thankfully, perceptions are malleable.
I remember when I discovered that I was a star pupil at school. I immediately decided to use that to get attention for something other than my albinism. By the age of eleven, I was even confident enough for public speaking and was making friends easier because I was more interactive.
Pretty soon, because I had accepted myself for who I was, the world followed suit. The trick is to convince oneself, and consequently others, of one’s worth.
What has been your biggest achievement thus far?
Self-liberation from the victim mentality which keeps many albinos trapped in shells of self-pity and hopelessness that prevent them from realising their full potential has been my biggest accomplishment to date. Every other achievement has been a by-product of this. But I also realise that my biggest accomplishment is not an isolated event. It is my present, preceded by a series of events and processes.
I was born with albinism but besides the physical limitations of my skin being overly sensitive to light and my eyesight being poor, I find it not to be an unfortunate circumstance at all. Indeed, I have had personal struggles with self-acceptance, confidence, self esteem and sometimes the concept of what is beautiful and what is ugly (after all, who hasn’t?), but I have overcome these struggles to reclaim my self. This has all been part of the process of self-liberation.
Tell us a little about your biggest professional or vocational achievements.
I am the first albino in Zimbabwe to graduate as a pharmacist since the school of Pharmacy was established at the UZ in 1974. I have travelled, made presentations at international fora, met Norwegian royalty, been on television and in magazines and I have innumerable friends. In short, I have explored many of my talents to the full and the world has smiled upon me. Lacking skin pigmentation has not prevented this.
Are you proud to be an albino? If you could, would you ever change yourself?
I would not go so far as to say that I am proud to have albinism. But I would not change it if I could. I would probably just improve my sight, but I would leave my skin and hair the way they are. I love the attention!
And because I have seen that having albinism does not prevent me from doing whatever I want to do in this life, and I have learnt to live with the few inconveniences it comes with. I have no reason to change it. In fact, I would choose to remain an albino just to prove to other people with albinism that they have no excuse for not becoming well-rounded human beings like everybody else.
Do you refer to yourself as a black person?
Not unless I really have to. I just refer to myself as African. This one time, I was filling an application form and a closed-ended question asked what race I was. The only options where, white, black, Asian and other. My mother advised that I tick the box that said “black”. After all, albinism is not a race but a condition.
What are some of the physical challenges, if any, that you experience on a regular basis?
I have vision problems and spectacles can only improve sight up to a certain point. And even with the best spectacles, people with albinism remain short sighted. So in order to see without squinting, I need to sit even further ahead than a seat in the front row for a PowerPoint presentation or stage performance.
As far as skin issues are concerned, I do not have problems at all. The world’s cosmetic industry is quite innovative. There are sunscreen lotions which prevent sunburns which discolour and disfigure the skin of albinos.
What’s your take on makeup and hair products?
I discovered makeup a few years ago and when I apply it, many people are not able to tell whether I am an African person with albinism or a Caucasian. Weaves now come in every shade of colour under the sun and the colour code 27 of any kind of weave works wonders for a person with albinism.
A black coloured weave is a strict no no because not only is it hideously ugly, but it absorbs too much UV light and thus damages the hair of an albino which lacks natural melanin and thus cannot protect itself from UV damage like normal hair can.
How easy or hard is it to get support and access to resources in Zimbabwe to help you lead a normal life as an albino?
It depends where one is looking, I guess. Sunscreen lotions are expensive. And like condoms, they require correct and consistent use for them to be effective. Those who rely on donated resources probably find the supply erratic.
I have been very fortunate because my family can afford these lotions and other devices like spectacles and sunglasses, and I have never had to try to access government funds or other kinds of social welfare resources set aside for people with albinism. But as part of a team, I am currently embarking on a mission to determine the needs of people with albinism in Zimbabwe and how they can be met sustainably.
How do you feel about some of the hate crimes perpetrated against albinos, for example the killing of albinos and the selling of their body parts?
I was looking at some pictures on the Internet, taken by a French journalist, of albinos in east Africa who were in safe houses built to house them in an effort to protect them from ritual killings and mutilations.
Some of the children looked so lost and depressed, and they were so young. They should be out somewhere playing and making a racket but instead, they are cooped up in some place away from their friends and family as if banished from society.
Whether one is an albino or not, those pictures will not fail to tug at your heart strings and one day, the governments of countries where these hate crimes are happening must be sent to The Hague for sitting by and not doing enough.
What is your wish for albinos in Zimbabwe, particularly albino women and girls?
First I wish women and girls with albinism would discover fake hair and make-up. Seriously. A great looking physical appearance may be taken for granted by the rest of the world, but to a person whose confidence and self-esteem is as fragile as that of many albinos, a beautiful physical appearance is priceless.
When a person looks in the mirror every morning and manages to convince herself that she is “it”, that woman can take on the world. Of course, sunscreen lotions prevent skin cancers and thus early death, but more importantly, those sunscreen lotions are self-esteem in a bottle.
Second, I wish they would know that a person’s lot in life is not determined by how they are born, otherwise God would not have made 7 billion of us so different. It is what you do after you are born which then determines your end.
Lastly, I wish albino women would know that many times, stigma and discrimination begins with them. The world has a tendency to just throw back at you what you emit. Believe in your mind first that you are worth love and respect, and the world will freely give it.