On Friday, ten young women and ten young men strutted down the runway in Nairobi, Kenya, competing in front of judges in categories ranging from African wear to professional wear to talent. The contenders’ deepest challenge wasn’t to convince the judges of their beauty, but to convince themselves. All of the participants are albino and have faced discrimination because of their appearance.

People with albinism are born with no or little pigment in their skin, hair and eyes, which makes them extremely susceptible to skin cancer. Many also have poor eyesight, which means that many never learn to read.

There are more people with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, and many face discrimination and violence. In some countries, including Tanzania and Malawi, a frightening number of albino people are murdered for their body parts, which are rumoured to hold magical healing properties. The UN has warned that people with albinism may become “extinct” because of the extremely high rate of these ritual killings.

Kenya is seen as a regional example, under the leadership of the Albinism Society of Kenya (ASK), which has pushed to institute several national programs. People with albinism in Kenya are eligible for free sunscreen, paid for by the government, and free skin cancer screenings. There are also some high profile people with albinism, including ASK chairman Isaac Mwaura, a Kenyan MP, who came up with the idea for a beauty pageant.

Contenders line up for the pageant. The lighting is purposefully low to protect their eyes. 

“I organized this pageant because I wanted to show the world that we have something to offer”

Issac Mwaura, the first albino member of parliament in Kenya, has dedicated his life to helping fellow East Africans with albinism. He has adopted two albino children who were almost killed before ASK intervened.

Mwaura underscored the meaning of the pageant.

One of the contestants told me that she knows she is beautiful when she is home, in her room, but as soon as she steps into the wider world, she isn’t sure anymore. Many people with albinism feel like that because of all the stigma. An alarming number of albino children are raised by single mothers, because fathers abandon them when they are born. That is my own family story.

I organized this pageant because I wanted to show the world that we have something to offer. I wanted these kids to show their talent publically, to show they are “beautiful beyond the skin”.

Participants arrive for the pre-pageant boot camp. 

“One contender dressed as a police officer, another as a sportsman… It was as if they were broadcasting how wide their horizons are”

We chose participants from across the country. We brought the 20 finalists to Nairobi for a week-long boot camp with professional trainers. Some of them arrived with very low self-esteem, but we worked on self-presentation and public speaking.

Event planning involved some special considerations. For example, the majority of people with albinism have weak eyes so we had to ensure that the lights weren’t too bright and that there would be no flashing cameras. We brought on board local designers, sponsors and international judges, including the winner of Miss World Kenya.

The young women who participated in the pageant try on shoes. 

The event itself was an amazing success. We had ambassadors, members of parliament and even the deputy president attend. I was most moved during the “professional attire” category. One contender dressed as a police officer, another as a sportsman and another in military uniform. It was as if they were broadcasting how wide their horizons are.

“The pageant really changed me”

Loise Lihanda, 19, grew up in Nairobi and now studies journalism and communications at the Multimedia University of Kenya. She was crowned Miss Albinism Kenya on Friday.

Participating in the pageant was the first time that I had been with such a big group of people with albinism and we were so excited to share our experiences and dreams. During the boot camp, the trainers pushed us really hard. I love things that challenge me, so the whole thing was a great learning experience.

I was really inspired by my fellow contenders. During the talent category, one recited a spoken word piece, another danced and another rode his skateboard. I sang a gospel song. I definitely didn’t expect to win. I was shocked when they announced it. Later, people told me that confidence is what helped me to win. And I did feel beautiful.

Loise Lihanda is selected as the pageant winner. 

As Miss Albinism Kenya, my plan is to create a performance to raise awareness amongst parents of children with albinism. I’ve always dreamed of working to help people like me and now I can.

Loise Lihanda was crowned winner, next to fellow winner Jairus Jzay. 

“I had a teacher who was prejudiced against albinos and she made my life miserable”

When I was in primary school, I felt really bad about myself. Kids would steal my hat and glasses and hide them [Editor’s note: Many people with albinism wear hats and sunglasses to protect themselves from the sun]. People would yell “albino” at me. From the age of 12 to 14, I had one particular teacher who was prejudiced against albinos and she made my life miserable. She gave me a broken desk. I'd already struggled to finish assignments because I had trouble reading small print and it became impossible when my desk would fall apart all the time. When I couldn’t finish, she’d beat me. I used to cry all the time and wonder why I was born this way.

When I started high school, I decided I needed a fresh start. I started talking to my teachers about my condition. By the end of high school, everything had changed-- I was top of my class and became a student leader.

The Albinism Society of Kenya (ASK) works to empower and aid people with albinism and provide them with access to both education and health care, including skin cancer screenings and eye check-ups. The ASK also funds the education of 65 children to counter the fact that many albino children are kept home from school or drop out due to their poor eyesight.

In June 2016, the first UN summit on albinism took place in Tanzania to look at ways to address both racism against and the ritual killing of albinos. The planned “Miss and Mister Albino” contest was hailed as a positive initiative.