Growing up, Abdul-Rahim King went to a private school. His dad was an educator. But he was an albino and not even being in a private school and having an educator father could save him from the stereotypes.
King’s teachers sent him to the back of the classroom where he struggled to see the blackboard. Albinism is a hereditary gene that causes a lack of pigmentation in the skin and hair and it comes with a number of associated health problems including poor vision, functional blindness and high skin sensitivity to the sun which can cause cancer.
“That’s what happens in most parts of the country. A lot of kids with Albinism are sent to the back of the classroom because of stereotypes and the teachers do not understand that we actually need to sit in the front so we can get proper notes.”
Because of the seating arrangement in Abdul-Rahim’s class, he missed out on lectures. “There were times I had to go to friends later on and catch up on notes because I could not see the notes on the board.”
Beside the seating arrangement, Abdoul-Rahim was also called ‘puna’, a name used to refer to albinos. Though he was bothered by this term, his thought was that “kids would always be kids” and that’s why they used the word to refer to him.
What also bothered Abdul-Rahim was that people would spit in their shirts when they passed him as a child so their kids would not have albinism, this act was done by both kids and some adults.
“As I grew, however, these stereotypes and acts of ignorance bothered me less and affected me less. One reason being I took up activism for young Gambians with albinism. I’ve been to a lot of African countries, including Southern African countries and saw what they go through. Compared to some of their struggles, we seem to have it easy, but there are still struggles like access to education especially in the up-country.”
Abdul-Rahim is currently the Chairperson of Albinism Society of The Gambia, an NGO working to create opportunities and access to education, raise awareness in the community and provide basic needs like sunscreen, and sunglasses for people with albinism.
Outside the classroom, Abdul-Rahim’s personal struggle as an albino had to do mostly with getting the aid he needed to stay healthy, including access to sunscreen and sunglasses. “I was lucky that my dad would get us (me and my younger sibling who also has albinism) sunscreen when he could, because a toothpaste size tube of sunscreen at Banjul Pharmacy was D800 at the time. I also knew how to dress and wear long sleeves to protect me from the sun.”
Abdul-Rahim is not alone in the fight for the rights of and opportunities for albinos. Amie T. Camara, a second year journalism student at the University of The Gambia, has set up the Founders For Albinos, a foundation raising awareness about albinism.
“My passion for albinos and fighting for their rights started back in 2016. Two of my cousins are albinos but I felt like I did not know much about albinos.”
I was lucky that my dad would get us (me and my younger sibling who also has albinism) sunscreen when he could, because a toothpaste size tube of sunscreen at Banjul Pharmacy was D800 at the time. I also knew how to dress and wear long sleeves to protect me from the sun.”
Her decision to set up her foundation stemmed from an experience one of the two cousins went through. “She didn’t want to go to school anymore because when she was always sitting at the back of the classroom and she couldn’t see the board. When she told the teacher that she could not see the board, the teacher would tell her that she was lying. I decided it was time for me to do something about the issue.”
Amie’s best moment to set up her foundation came when she was selected to take part in the Face of UTG beauty pageant.
“I used albinism as my platform and after the pageant, one of the judges told me that ‘you did really well, but if you had changed your platform for something better it would be amazing and you would have won the crown’. At first I was angry, but then I turned that anger into passion. I was passionate about albinism.”
Amie started reading books about albinism and going online and searching for videos about Tanzania and Kenya and how albinos were treated in those countries.
“I also learned that Gambia is a good place for albinos except for the lack of access to education due to parents and teachers not understanding that there is nothing wrong with them and they should be encouraged. The life expectancy of albinos is also short, especially in the rural settings because they die of skin cancer from too much exposure. It breaks my heart because both my cousins have dropped out of school and I’m so passionate about girls’ education and I believe they are both so smart.”
I used albinism as my platform and after the pageant, one of the judges told me that ‘you did really well, but if you had changed your platform for something better it would be amazing and you would have won the crown’. At first I was angry, but then I turned that anger into passion
Now Abdul-Rahim and Amie are teaming up to initiate programs and projects for the empowerment of albinos. Among the plans are to travel across the country to raise awareness about the plight of albinos and the need for them to have access to quality education, and getting them their basic needs such as sunglasses.