“I don’t care!” her father said, “Look at it. It’s not normal. It’s no part of this family, and I won’t have it in my house! The spirits are displeased with us. I will consult with the shaman and prepare a sacrifice. Take it away, or it will bring us a lot of bad luck. If you don’t get rid of it, I will.”
Five minutes after her birth, she had been disowned by her father, having been born with albinism – a total lack of pigmentation, showing itself in deathly-white skin and hair, and pink, almost transparent, irises. Her mother had no alternative but to take her out of the village and try to care for her in the open bush country.
“My baby needs to be cared for properly. I can’t look after her in the bush; she will die!” her mother pleaded.
“So be it. If that is the will of the spirits, so be it,” came the reply.
“Let us stay tonight, and I will leave in the morning. Please?”
“You may stay in the shed with the goats. I don’t want that thing in my house, and I want you gone when the sun rises tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” her mother said. It wasn’t what she wanted to say; she wanted to say, “that thing is your daughter. You made her as she is.” But she knew her place, so she just thanked him. “I will return after some time,” she added.
The next morning, before sunrise, mother and child left the village. The child was fully wrapped against the sun. It made her hot and they had to make frequent stops to take advantage of whatever shade they could find. In the heat of the day, they came across a deserted hut, where they stayed until the sun was low in the sky. They set off at twilight and walked through the night, looking for any food and shelter they could find. This set the pattern for the next four years; living the life of nomads, with no home, no income, no roots. Wherever they went, they were shunned and, despite the mother’s pleas, no village would allow them entry, restricting them to its peripheries. Constantly struggling for food, clothing and shelter, the pair were forced into hiding during daylight hours, avoiding the fierce sun that would burn her daughter’s fragile, unpigmented skin, and the bright light that would hurt her unshielded eyes.
During their fifth year of wandering they arrived, weak, tired, malnourished and suffering many ailments, at a small Christian mission.
Knocking weakly on the door, they were met by Fr Manuel, a priest of Spanish origin. Addressing them in their native tongue he asked, “What can I do for you, my child?”
“My daughter has been born without colour,” her mother said. “Her father refuses to have her in the house, because she will bring bad luck. We have been wandering the bush, feeding on whatever berries and meat we could find, fearing animals and shunned by people. Can you help us?”
“Of course, my child. We have had one such girl here for almost a year, and our Sisters are well equipped to keep and raise your child. She will be raised in the Christian faith and she will be taught English and Spanish. You also may remain here for as long as you wish. Are you happy with that?”
“I shall be happy if she remains alive and cared for.”
“What is the child’s name?” Fr Manuel enquired.
“She has no name. According to our traditions, she should not be named because she is not human. She is a ghost, a cursed one.”
After taking a good meal with Fr Manuel and the Sisters, the child’s mother left the mission, saying she would return to her village.
Once mother had left, Fr Manuel made the arrangements necessary for the child’s care. She was immediately baptised into the Roman Catholic Church, and given the name Clara, which translates as clear or bright.
Fr Manuel and the Sisters, helped by visiting clergy and lay helpers, cared for Clara and the other albino girl, as well as a small number of orphans. All the children received instruction in the Catholic faith, English, Spanish and a range of other subjects. Despite her very disadvantaged early years, Clara was soon well ahead of the rest of the children.
On her thirteenth birthday, Fr Manuel called her aside.
“Clara,” he said, “you know that you are more advanced than any of the others here, don’t you?”
“I’m truly sorry, Father,” she replied, “I know it is a sin to be boastful and to think of myself as better than the others, and I don’t. But I enjoy all my studies, and I always want to know more. Is that bad? Should I stop?”
“Not at all, Clara,” Fr Manuel reassured her, “your wish to learn and your ability to learn are precious gifts from God. I am worried that you are now so advanced that there is nothing else we can teach you. I think you are ready for a big step.”
“I have written about you to the Archbishop in the capital. He wants you to go there, and to study at the State Academy. He believes you could go on to university and have a great career.”
“You mean you are sending me away?” Clara asked, angrily, “You promised my mother you would look after me, but you are the same as the rest; you just want to be rid of me because of the colour of my skin!”
“That isn’t true, Clara, and I think you know it,” replied Fr Manuel, calmly, “We love having you here. You have become an important part of our family. We don’t know who will teach the younger ones, when you leave. We will miss you, terribly. But if you stay here, life will become dull for you. There is very little more we can teach you, and we don’t have the facilities that they have in the academy.”
Clara went to bed angry, but realised that she was being given an offer she would be foolish to refuse. A week later, she was on her way to the big city, to the capital.
She settled well with the Archbishop, but things at the academy were less comfortable. Her albinism was a problem. As she had found in the mission, she couldn’t join in many of the outdoor activities, for fear of sunburn, and of accelerating the almost inevitable onset of skin cancers. The light was taking its toll on her eyes, too. Some days it was painful to stare at the screens of the computers she had to use there. That left her with a reputation of being remote and distant, and many felt that she considered herself better than them. There seemed nothing she could do to shake that reputation, or to secure acceptance from her peers. Though she enjoyed her studies, these were sad days for Clara.
Things improved when she went up to university, where she studied humanities and politics with a special emphasis on the social, political and medical implications of albinism. Her courses required her to spend many hours in ill-lit libraries and studies, which helped her eyes, and much time in discussion and debate; areas in which she excelled, thanks to her sharp wit coupled with highly developed empathic skills.
After graduation, Clara looked for employment in an area where she could make a difference to other people afflicted with albinism, but there was nothing available. She applied for, and received, a grant from an international philanthropic body, with which she set up a foundation aimed at alleviating the suffering of people with albinism.
Today, eight years later, Clara is recognised as the foremost African authority on her subject. Her foundation is working with others to produce sunscreen that is effective for her people; to elevate their status in government, commerce and industry and, crucially, to address the old tribal belief that babies born without pigment are evil, or bringers of bad luck and, paradoxically, that body parts taken from people with albinism can render more effective, spells and potions designed to bring luck and wealth.
Thus has the rejected baby not only become a bright light in her own right, but she is working, with others, to prevent the rejection of other babies like her.
This week’s challenge at http://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com/ is to take a fairytale. No prizes for guessing which I chose.