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Albino beauty pageant redefines beauty amid persecution

Story highlights
  • Beauty pageant for people with albinism held in Nairobi
  • In some African countries, albinos are abused -- and even killed
  • "I am confident. I hold my head high," said Miss Albinism, Loise Lihanda

Nairobi(CNN) In some parts of Africa, albinism is considered a curse, but last weekend in Kenya it was redefined as a sign of beauty.

In a first for the country, a beauty pageant for people with albinism was held in Nairobi, on October 21, where 20 contestants sang, danced, and flaunted at-times flashy costumes for a crowd that included political leaders.

It was a stark contrast to the discrimination suffered by albinos in some African countries, where albinism can mean abuse -- and even death.

The UN reported that 40 attacks on albinos took place across Africa in the eight months prior to March 2016. Advocacy group Under the Same Sun estimates that 207 people with albinism were killed between 2007 and 2013 in Africa, some in relation to the belief that albino bones can bring wealth, happiness and good luck.

Many more Africans with albinism are victims of violence, rape and mutilation.

Kenya's first and only albino MP, Isaac Mwaura, spearheaded the event and said he wants to change the narrative.

"We will make the world understand that we aren't 'mzungu,'" Mwaura told the audience at Nairobi's upscale Carnivore restaurant and event space, using a Swahili term for a white person.

"We aren't pesa (money). We are human beings," he added.

In Kenya, people with albinism are sometimes referred to as "pesa" -- which means "money" in Swahili -- alluding to the vast sums of money rumored to be paid for their bones in places like Malawi, Mozambique and across the border in Tanzania.

Ostracized by their communities

Albinism is an inherited genetic condition characterized by a lack of pigmentation in skin, eyes and hair.

Some African societies see the condition as a curse. Others believe albinism is a sign of infidelity, where a mother had an affair with a white man, and many contestants were raised by single mothers after their fathers left soon after they were born. Many are ostracized by their communities.

"People would ask my mother, what kind of mother are you?" said Simon Gachucha, a 20-year-old contestant. "She got affected. She used to ask herself, how could she have a son with albinism? She used to think something was wrong with her."

Gachucha says he grew up with low self-esteem.

"It has not been an easy journey to acceptance," he said. "I had to understand that I could not die and be reborn as a black man. I needed to realize that I am a black man because I was born by a black woman."

In Kenya, two albinos have died and four children have been rescued from deadly situations since 2009, although advocates expect the true figures to be higher.

The situation is worse in other African countries. The United Nations says there have been 65 recorded cases of attacks against albinos in Malawi since November 2014.

Contestants said part of the problem in Kenya is psychological.

"You're seeing your fellow [albino] brothers and sisters being killed for rituals," said Andrew Ngune, a 21-year-old contestant. "It's not hurting us physically but it's a lot of mental torture."

'Now I am confident. I hold my head high'

In a spoken word performance, Jairus Ong'etta touched on his experience.

"It will always remain black boards need white chalk, white bible pages - black inscriptions. So white in Kenya doesn't just stand for peace, it means a people, a face."

He went on to be crowned Mr. Albinism. The Miss Albinism award went to Loise Lihanda.

"I used to sit in the back of the classroom with my big hat and hold my head down," said Lihada (referring to the large hats many people with the condition wear to protect them from the sun). "Now I am confident. I hold my head high."

While the work for equality for people with albinism in Kenya will continue, events like this are helping to change albinos' attitudes to their condition.

"When I walk down the street sometimes they call me 'money,'" said Valencia Bosibori.

Where before she was embarrassed, she says she's come up with a new response.

"I say 'look at yourself, look at me,'" she said, and then winked. "Who is more valuable?"