“Shine bright like a diamond!!!!” said an early post on the “Miss Albinism Zimbabwe” Facebook page, a nod to Rihanna. Another message, “Beauty beyond the skin!!! Come and witness beauty of albinism, see you there!!!!”
Last Friday night, 15 women had planned to compete in the beauty pageant. But with protesters calling for an end to the 37-year-old rule of President Robert Mugabe, the show just couldn’t go on.
“We did it for safety of these girls,” says Memory Munyoro, a project coordinator at Zimbabwe Albino Association who helped coordinate the pageant. “If anything happens to them that means we’ll be responsible as an organization.”
The first pageant for people with albinism was reportedly held in Kenya last year. The Zimbabwe pageant was the brainchild of Brenda Mudzimu, a nursing student who first understood she had albinism at age 10. Albinism is inherited from both parents through a gene that inhibits the production of melanin, leaving people with no pigment in their hair, skin and eyes.
Mudzimu says the pageant is meant “to bring awareness, to instill confidence” in girls with the genetic condition.
Until the competition was postponed, its organizers were hoping to fill the theater’s 461 seats. The event is now rescheduled for February 16, 2018.
Beauty pageants are often criticized for objectifying women. But Ikponwosa Ero, a U.N. expert on albinism, has a different perspective about this pageant. A Nigerian with albinism herself, she says some people think beauty and albinism are mutually exclusive: “They are seen as in opposition. This kind of event tries to bring that distance closer together and show these two things can coexist.”
“All the reservations that we tend to have about pageantry and the potential objectification of women, those things are valid,” says Ero. “But in this case, we have to create an exception just because of the neglect. We’re some of the ones who have been left the furthest behind.”
One of the beauty pageant contestants is Monalisa Manyati, a 21-year-old law student. She has experienced cruelty in Mabvuku, a suburb of Harare where she has lived all her life. “I remember years back some kids followed me and were throwing stones at me, calling me ‘munhu akamenya’ — a person who has been peeled. Even today I get that from men who make nasty comments about me when I walk in the streets,” says Manyati.
Despite being harassed, Manyati says it doesn’t shake her confidence. That’s why she signed up for the beauty pageant. “I want to be an inspiration to others,” she says, adding that “seeing other beautiful ladies with the same condition as me gives me strength.”
In many countries in Africa, including Zimbabwe, being born with albinism can be dangerous. The belief persists in some cultures that the body parts of people with albinism can be used in rituals to bring healing or prosperity. Their hair, skin and limbs may be sold on the black market. Children are often targeted in attacks.
From Zimbabwe, Ero has received three reports of violence, including a 26-year-old woman who was murdered and whose body was dismembered, and a teenager who was raped by a man who believed that his action would cure his HIV. Ero says that it’s sometimes difficult to gather information on attacks because local media may not report them, and survivors might feel ashamed to come forward.
Under The Same Sun, a Canadian charity that advocates for the rights of people with albinism, began looking at police reports of attacks in 2006 and now compiles data based on newspaper accounts and testimonies from family members. They have counted hundreds of attacks, according to Don Sawatzky, director of operations.
People with albinism face medical challenges as well. An International Journal of Education and Research report found that vision problems related to the condition make it harder for children to keep up in school. A 2012 study also found that people with albinism are at grave risk for skin cancer.
A Tanzanian nonprofit group is producing and distributing free sunscreen, called Kilisun, at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, to protect against skin cancer. Rutendo Musa, a pageant contestant with a newborn boy, is studying biological science at a state university. “One day I would love to have my own lab where I will be manufacturing sunscreen lotions for all the people living with albinism here in Zimbabwe,” she says. “If I am crowned Miss Albinism Zimbabwe, it’s going to be a stepping stone for me.”
The contestants range from age 18 to 34 and come from across the country. They were expecting to sing and recite poetry on stage, answer questions and wear traditional African garb. One of the four judges has albinism, one had won a different beauty pageant and two are fashion designers. The prizes include groceries, cosmetics and cash awards from $100 to $250.
With the pageant’s postponement, organizers say it will give them more time to raise money. They want to buy a catwalk for the stage and also want to be able to buy television and radio ads to promote the event.
“It was to some extent disappointing, I must admit, but it was also a blessing in disguise,” says Manyati of the delay. “We now have sufficient time to perfect our walk. You know, like how the fashion models do it.”
Sasha Ingber is a multimedia journalist who has covered science, culture and foreign affairs for such publications as National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine and Smithsonian. Contact her @SashaIngber