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How football games between persons with albinism and vitiligo are helping fight stigma in Kenya

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Kenya has an estimated 9,000 persons living with albinism but closely held cultural perceptions mean the condition continues to carry a deep stigma – one that these matches hope to change, writes Elizabeth Okwach for Minority Africa.

While pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Moi University in Kenya in 2008, Tom Radido noticed patches on his body. 

His family came up with a theory: they concluded he had stepped on ash burned during a traditional rite following the death of twins. To reverse the condition, Radido was given ash to lick, with some smeared on his face. Nothing changed. 

It was instead the onset of vitiligo, a skin condition affecting about 0.5 to 2% of the world’s population. It also marked the beginning of a series of discrimination against Radido. 

“You go for interviews and from the receptionist, no one wants to look at you twice,” he tells Minority Africa. “There is this interview that I was invited to attend, and I had not stated in my resume that I was disabled. During the interview no one dared to look me in the face, even the CEO, they asked me questions while looking down.”

30-year-old Radido is now one of nearly sixty persons who are part of Royal Patches, a group using soccer to foster the inclusion of persons living with vitiligo in Kenya. 

“I feel more confident, and relaxed when I am around [other persons living with vitiligo],” he says. “I am able to express myself freely, I don’t get worried that people are staring at me due to my skin patches.” 

One of the teams the group plays games with and against to a large audience is Black Albinism Football Club (BAFC), which is comprised entirely of people living with albinism and similar to Royal Patches is using soccer to create a safe space for persons with albinism while equally combatting widespread discrimination against them. 

Black Albinism Football Club  was started by two people living with albinism, one of which is 26-year-old Angie Kite whose experience with discrimination began as a child when her parents neglected her and refused to pay for her education. 

“We called it Black Albinism because we are too ‘white’ to be Black,” Kite tells Minority Africa. “We are in a Black country, but we are ‘white.’” 

So far the group, which began in 2018, has organised ten games, has around 30 members, and has participated in a sporting tournament in Tanzania. The matches between BAFC and Royal Patches, which attract dozens of people, have been focal points to create community, says Kite, for both persons living with albinism and persons living with vitiligo.

“I found courage – something that I didn’t have since the first patch appeared on my skin.”

Patricia Mwangi, Royal Patches

“The feeling of playing with other people who have a disability is so refreshing and homely. It is just a way of creating awareness in a more not worrying way,” she says. 

Paul Butita, who is the co-founder of BAFC and also plays on the team, said: “It is not all about the trophy or funding but our joy is when we reach out to other people,” 

Butita says the team has been registered with the country’s Ministry of Sports, adding that the matches have also motivated other disability-rights groups to form their football teams, such as the Little People Team created by the Short Stature Society of Kenya and which now compete against BAFC in regular tournaments.

He adds, “In fact, they also motivated the Stammering Society of Kenya to form their own team.”

Nonetheless, organising at this level has not come without hurdles for both teams. BAFC and Royal Patches say they have to compete for pitch slots with major soccer clubs, which forces them to use playgrounds within estates in the city. There’s also limited access to gear and football attire the teams need. 

Additionally, Dr Prabha Choksey, an ophthalmologist practising in Kenya and founder of Dr Choksey Albinism Foundation warns that playing under the sun can have negative effects on persons living with albinism. “They will be more prone to skin cancer,” she says.

But BAFC and Royal Patches are not oblivious to this and the many other challenges that come with a game such as theirs. They seem to be skilled in adaptability. 

Social media has been a tool for both groups and has connected them with a portion of their audience, such as Patricia Mwangi who plays for Royal Patches and has lived with vitiligo since 2005. Mwangi found the group on Facebook and hasn’t looked back since. 

“Here I’ve met people who have a strong zeal and are not afraid to [show] their bodies,” she tells Minority Africa. “They would put on football attire without blinking.” 

“I hope we shall also start participating in international games like the Little People football team for short-statured people,” she says. Commenting generally about the games, she adds, “I found courage – something that I didn’t have since the first patch appeared on my skin.”

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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