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Albinism pageant in Zimbabwe joyfully breaks down prejudice

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Ayanda Sibanda, a model with albinism, has invariably been called “yellow” or “white” by friends and even some relatives. But she hardly recalls anyone referring to her by her actual race.

“I am black, that’s what I thought, but then I am always made to feel otherwise,” said the 18-year old who was crowned Miss Albinism Zimbabwe on Friday night.

At the pageant, competitors and organizers spoke frankly about colour and prejudice.

About 70,000 of Zimbabwe’s estimated 16 million people are born with albinism, according to government figures. They often stand out, making them a subject at times of discrimination, ridicule and dangerously misguided beliefs.

“Some have superstitions that we can bring luck or cure HIV,” said Brenda Mudzimu, organizer of the pageant, one of a growing number of such events in Africa .

In nearby Malawi and Tanzania, albinos are sometimes killed for their body parts for use in witchcraft. No such killings have been recorded in Zimbabwe. But people with albinism say life is still tough.

The Mr. and Miss Albinism Zimbabwe competition, now in its second year, is a chance to push back.

“I want it to be normal for an albino girl to achieve without it being a newspaper headline,” Ayanda told The Associated Press. “They never say a black girl won Miss Zimbabwe. But if I were to win it, they would all say an albino girl won.”

Friday night’s crown was her second in just weeks. Last month she was crowned second princess of Miss Teen Zimbabwe. “It was open to every race,” she said. But she said she has been told she lost some other pageants only because of her albinism.

She and others, including university students and a nurse, strutted down the tiny runway Friday night to Ed Sheeran’s hit song “Perfect,” posed for judges and answered questions to cheers from the crowd.

The loudest cheers were for the male models, competing for the first time.

“My God, he is such a hunk,” shouted one woman in the crowd. “This is what I call a real man,” yelled another as the eventual winner of Mr. Albinism, Edson Mambinge, a 21-year-old fitness trainer, strolled by.

“When I am modelling, albinism is not my peculiarity. My fitness is,” Mambinge said.

Amping up the energy, poet Rufaro Chinyanga went lyrical to unpack the racial complexities.

“Walking down the streets I hear these voices, ‘You ghost, you pig, you half caste’ and I go home with my heart in my hands and I say, ‘Mother, tell me the truth, did you have an affair with a white man?’ And she looks at me and says, ‘My son, you are just white yet black, black as they are.”‘

The crowd snapped fingers in eager response.

“These are life experience lyrics. I am speaking on behalf of myself and for all the people with albinism,” Chinyanga said afterward.

The battle to impress pageant judges started three days earlier at a boot camp with lessons in catwalking and confidence-building. Beauty pageants are popular in this southern African country, and even pre-school children compete for regional titles.

Putting this event together was a “nightmare,” however, because of lack of adequate sponsorship, said organizer Mudzimu.

Winners walked away with mobile phones, and the Miss Albino winner will attend a confidence-building and women’s workshop in neighbouring Botswana, she said. The male winner will travel to neighbouring South Africa for a grooming session.

Mudzimu said she hoped more sponsors will chip in as the pageant grows and gains more popularity “like the so-called normal ones.”

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