People with albinism living in the Democratic Republic of Congo face daily discrimination that sometimes spirals into verbal abuse and even physical violence. A young artist in Kinshasa decided to fight this discrimination by making people with albinism the subject of his paintings. He told the Observers about the controversy that his work has inspired.

Albinism is a genetic condition that causes a deficiency in the production of melanin, which affects a person’s pigment. People with albinism are also at high risk for skin cancer.

There is a particularly high rate of albinism amongst people from sub-Saharan Africa. According to some estimates, an estimated one out of every 4,000 people is affected. In comparison, only one out of every 20,000 people born in Europe and the United States have this genetic anomaly.

A mother with albinism and her child.

There is a particularly high rate of albinism in sub-Saharan Africa.

"I want to show that you can live happily with a person with albinism — or even marry one!"

Josué Valentia Mbanga Iloko, age 20, is an art student living in Kinshasa. He explained why he started painting people with albinism.

When I was 15, I really liked a girl who was albino. We went to the same church. But my friends didn’t want me to talk to her because she was different. Little by little, I realised that their way of thinking was ridiculous.

At the same time, I realized the level of discrimination and prejudice that Congolese people with albinism face — just like those in other countries. In Kinshasa, a man will often divorce his wife if she gives birth to a child who is albino. Albino children often have trouble making friends at school and, later on, find it difficult to find a job. In the suburbs or the countryside, they face outright danger: albino people often get beaten up… or worse.

It’s common for parents get divorced after an albino child is born.

Children with albinism often have trouble making friends at school.

As I started to learn more about the situation that people with albinism face, I decided I wanted to do something about it. About two years ago, I started featuring people with albinism in my paintings. Sometimes, I include a person with albinism next to someone with a dark complexion. I want to show that you can live happily with a person with albinism — or even marry one! I have already held an exhibition of my work in a school in Kinshasa.

Josué Valentia Mbanga Iloko started to paint people with albinism in 2015.

Iloko’s workshop.

The artist wants his paintings to demonstrate that you can fall in love and marry someone with albinism.

"Some of my friends actually stopped talking to me
because of my work"

I’ve met a lot of people with albinism since I started this series. Generally, when they see my paintings, they tell me that they are really touched by them. They often open up to me about their lives. For example, one girl started crying and told me that she wished more people cared. I don’t think that anyone else in Kinshasa is producing work like mine.

The reception that I get for my work from people who don’t have albinism really varies. Some people find my paintings extraordinary, while others think they are stupid. Some of my friends actually stopped talking to me because they don’t understand why I am interested in people with albinism and why I paint them. There are people here who truly believe that those with albinism are like animals, even if I tell them that albinos are human beings, just like anyone else.

In spite of the challenges that people with albinism continue to face in the DRC, things do seem to be improving. Much of this is thanks to the organisation of events that aim to raise awareness about this population. In 2015, a group of men and women with albinism participated in a fashion show organised by director Yan Mambo, who is himself albino. For the past two years, Mambo has also organised an annual festival called “Fièrement Ndundu” or “Proudly Ndundu”, which is the word in Lingala for albino. The event lasted several days and included concerts, debates and workshops led by many albino artists and speakers.

In Tanzania, Malawi and Burundi, people with albinism often fall victim to ritual crimes because of the persistence of traditional beliefs that their body parts have magical powers.

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