By Tracey Chizoba Fletcher
There was a minute of stunned silence. It was soon followed by the sounds of muffled cries as Mrs. Okoro cupped her hands over her mouth. All the hurts and frustrations she had borne for the past fifteen years of marriage, flowed freely like a faucet turned on.
She hadn’t dared to hope that her heart desire could eventually be granted. But after the first two months of silent observation, without her period showing its face, she had summoned the courage to tell her husband what was happening to her.
“Could it be Menopause?” he had asked, perplexed.
She was forty-five-years-old. For the past thirty-five years, she had never missed her period. At one point, she had dreaded the beginning of each month. The sight of the flow of blood always filled her with a sense of utter helplessness.
When her husband suggested they visit the hospital, she didn’t think she had it in her to sit down and listen to their family doctor announce that Menopause had reared its ugly head, and be reminded of the too many disappointments in their quest to have a child. Her husband’s persistence finally pulled down her defenses.
Mrs. Okoro had expected a straight forward diagnosis, but it came as a rude shock, when Dr. Mike requested a pregnancy test after examining her and asking some questions.
Yes, she had been feeling tired lately! But wasn’t she always tired? She had this poisonous aura of lifelessness around her. Of course she had nursed some abdominal pain recently! But weren’t abdominal pains a usual part of a woman’s life.
When the doctor called them back into his office a few hours later, and held their gaze intensely before speaking, his words landed like an atomic bomb.
She wondered if she had heard the words right. It just couldn’t be! She realized she couldn’t speak; so she burst into tears. Only Mr. Okoro could voice out the words in her head.
“Pregnant? How? After ten failed IVF’S?” he asked, repeatedly, his eyes darting back and forth, waiting for answers.
“All I can say is that this is a miracle. Your wife is two months pregnant. Congratulations once again,” Dr. Mike announced, beaming with smiles.
The Okoro’s quickly came to terms with the new disruption in their lives. Preparations were made towards the arrival of the new baby.
Mrs. Okoro bore the pains of childbirth. She screamed, groaned, and writhed in pain, until her baby burst forth into the world. It had been a complicated delivery due to her age and other under-lining factors; but even in her tired state, the sound of the cry of the baby filled her with a feeling of great joy like she had never felt before.
A few months later, both parents began to notice something different about their baby. Surely, it was the way of newly-born babies to be light-skinned! The milky-white skin will definitely give way to its true colour.
It didn’t take long for them to be forced to face the truth. How could their daughter whom they had christened ‘Gift’ be so different from them? Was she switched at the hospital? How could a dark-skinned couple give birth to a pale-skinned child? A child with features akin to that of an Albino!
Mr. Okoro got so mad, he bundled his wife and the child into his car, and drove to the hospital.
“Dr. Mike, this is not my child,” he announced as he was admitted into the Doctor’s office. “We can’t have an albino! Give me back my real child, or all hell will break loose.”
“There are ways to find out,” Dr. Mike advised. “If you can submit yourselves to some tests, I am sure we will get to the bottom of this.”
Mrs. Okoro sat down, cowed. This was a nightmare she wanted to wake up from.
Mr. Okoro’s anger fizzled away like an ice cream cone placed under intense heat. The revelation from Dr. Mike had pulled out the wool from their eyes. Never had it occurred to them that a child who suffered from Achromasia – another medical term for Albinism which was a group of inherited disorders characterized by little or no melanin production – inherited the albinism trait from both parents who were considered to be carriers of the albinism trait, because they carry a recessive gene for the condition, but do not manifest the condition themselves. Inevitably, Gift was a product of both their genes. It was a difficult pill to swallow.
The only time Mrs. Okoro reacted harshly towards her husband was when he let it slip that if he had been aware of the nature of their genes, she would have undergone a Fetoscopy between the sixteenth and twenty-sixth week of the pregnancy to ascertain if the child would be an albino, in time for subsequent abortion.
At the mention of an abortion, Mrs. Okoro informed her husband that she would never have agreed to that. A child was a gift from God no matter the colour of the skin.
Mr. Okoro grudgingly accepted it over a period of time; but it wasn’t soon enough, because Gift’s first birthday was marked without any pomp and pageantry. He didn’t know how to introduce her to the world.
As Gift grew older, her features became more pronounced. Her skin, eyelashes and eyebrows were pale, and her hair was golden, although the iris of her pupils were brown. In her third year in primary school, her mother took her to an ophthalmologist who prescribed a pair of photochromic glasses for her, to relieve light sensitivity. She only went under the sun when it was necessary; and in such a case, she applied sun block and wore sun protective clothing.
As for Gift, she didn’t need a prophetess to spell out the difference for her. People avoided her. She only had to hear the word ‘Albino’ or ‘Afin’ – the local way of saying it – to know that she was being referred to.
Many mornings Gift refused to go to school. She cried her eyes out and begged her mother to let her stay at home, but her mother vehemently refused. When things came to a head at school, Mrs. Okoro paid a visit to the headmistress, Mrs. Anita.
Mrs. Anita was a staunch disciplinarian and was appalled at what she had learned. She had stern words for her students at the assembly. The show of contempt and mockery receded a great deal, but the snide remarks always reared an ugly head when Gift least expected it.
Thus, Gift resolved to keep to herself. She couldn’t cope with the stigmatization, so why seek for attention. Going to school was a lonely affair. Her books became her best friend and succor.
Several years later, Gift progressed into senior secondary school, achieving various feats academically. In her final year, a new boy was admitted into her science class. It took quite some time before she became aware of the fact that she was an object of his interest. Francis sat two rows behind her. Whenever she turned around, his gaze was centered on her. Gift didn’t know what to make of it. What could he possibly want from her?
To say she was very uncomfortable was an under-statement. His intense gaze grated on her nerves, so she tried to pretend to be unaware of him. However, he was never far away from her thoughts when she retreated to the safety of her home. She happily giggled over the few times she had caught him gazing at her. His dimpled smile made her heart flutter. She longed for what she couldn’t touch; a vision of sweetness in the distance.
The resumption of the second term was filled with preparations for the West African Secondary School Certificate Exam (WASSCE).
The first paper was a Biology practical. It shouldn’t have been memorable. Francis had been behind her on the way to the work table. He had whispered only to her hearing before he moved away; but the words stayed with her. “Shine on, snow princess,” he had said.
Snow princess! It was a litany in her mind. It took her to sleep, and woke up with her. No, he couldn’t have called her that, she surmised, but when he said it again the next morning, she knew she hadn’t made it up.
At night she mulled it over. Was Francis her prince? Was he going to give her a kiss that will turn her world around? She let out a loud giggle, and quickly covered her mouth with her pillow. This was her secret to revel in.
The days went by in a daze of stunned stupor. Francis was a chaser. She anticipated his next moves. A brush of his hands on the staircase, a look across the canteen, the move of his lips as he mouthed ‘Snow Princess’. Her heart swelled so much, she was afraid it would burst. Yes, she was certainly a snow princess, and Francis was her prince charming. How had her life suddenly become interesting?
Gift was cocooned in her world of dreams and reciprocated love. Her mother noticed the change in her, but Gift refused to divulge what was happening for fear of her mother putting a stop to it. Her mother viciously protected her like a mother hen.
Francis grew more daring as he began slipping bits of paper into her palm. The first time he did it, she blushed and her skin reddened so quickly that people around her noticed. She heard the whispers but she didn’t care to pay attention. Tears sprang to her eyes after reading his first note. Her eyes skimmed through the lines not believing what she saw.
Her skin glows,
Her milky-white complexion dazzles,
Her golden hair shines,
Her brown eyes sparkles,
What joy I feel, knowing that she is my “Snow Princess,”
For even the balls of snow that fall down from the sky pale in comparison to her!
She is mine; she is my “Snow Princess.”
However, anything that has a beginning surely has an end. It came swiftly and abruptly, leaving a lot of damage in its wake. Gift was preparing to head home on the last day of her papers when Francis slipped another note into her palm. It contained his phone number. Gift’s heart thumped in excitement. Her father had promised her a phone after the end of the exams.
She reached out to him as soon as she got hers, and they began communicating via Whatsapp. Gift found the boldness she had never possessed and let go of her inhibitions. It was the best week she had ever had.
That Saturday morning, they were woken up by a loud banging on the gate. Her father was away on a business trip.
By the time she opened the pedestrian gate, her mother had joined her. A fiery looking woman barged into the compound. Her manner took them aback. Gift’s mother had just opened her mouth to speak when the woman started screaming:
“Leave my son alone, you white witch!”
Gift stood stunned, while her mother tried to make sense of what was happening.
“What are you talking about?” Mrs. Okoro asked.
The woman continued, “Tell your daughter to leave my son, Francis, alone. She knows no one else wants her so she has bewitched my son. You won’t succeed in getting pregnant for my son and giving him albino children,” she ranted, clapping in front of Gift, and running around in circles.
Tears streamed down Gift’s cheeks. By the time the neighbours had separated her mother from Francis’ mother and whisked her out of the compound, Gift was in a heap on the floor, her mind dazed.
There are different types of pain. It can last for a few moments and come to an end, or dine and wine with you. The latter was what plagued Gift. How could she have let go of the protective cloak wrapped around her and opened the door to this level of humiliation? What was worse was that Francis’ mobile number was no longer available on Whatsapp. He had left just as abruptly as he had come in.
Mrs. Okoro was deeply pained. Why didn’t she see the signs? She had assumed that her daughter was shedding her skin like most teenagers do and trying to find her path. She tried all she could to help her daughter overcome her pain, but Gift rebuffed it all. When her father returned, he huffed and ranted over the woman’s insolence and cautioned his wife to keep a stricter vigilance over Gift. They had to be aware of every step she took.
Gift remained in her room with the curtains drawn. In a fit of anger, she tore up Francis’ notes, and flushed them down the water closet. It was all a pack of lies. She wasn’t a Snow Princess. She was a pale-skinned, golden haired, brown-eyed Albino. Gift knew that she could never find the courage to walk out of her father’s house. Francis’ mother had stripped her of whatever modicum of dignity she had mustered.
The months slipped by and the WASSCE results were released. Gift came tops, passing all her papers with flying colours. Her parents couldn’t bring up any discussion about furthering her education. She avoided staring at her reflection in the mirror, and brought down all the mirrors in the house. Her looks were her greatest enemy.
One beautiful Saturday morning, Mrs. Okoro began her morning devotion in the living room as she went through her Bible and daily devotional. Gift padded out of her room into the living room just as her mother got up to head to the toilet. In the last three weeks, she had begun coming out to the living room to watch a bit of TV.
The devotional slipped from the top of the Bible and fell to the tiled floor. Gift picked it up and made to place it on the Bible, when she gasped aloud. Mrs. Okoro’s Bible was of the Kings James Version and of the super-giant print. The letters were quiet large and very legible, so the verse jumped at her.
It was Psalm 139: 14. It said, “You are Fearfully and Wonderfully made.”
What? The words spiraled like a circle in her head.
Gift was neither a religious nor spiritual person, but the words stripped whatever veil that had covered her eyes. It was like she had reborn. Her mother came out of the toilet, and met her seating on the sofa, a solemn expression on her face.
“So, I am truly a ‘gift’ and not a curse,” she announced.
Mrs. Okoro sat opposite her daughter, staring at her strangely. “What are you talking about? Who ever said you are a curse?”
Gift huffed in anger. “The world! They despise my milky-white skin and golden hair. I let them strip me of my dignity and confidence. But not anymore, mum,” she said, rising. “This book, the Bible, says I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I was born to be different. Today, I embrace that difference. Yes, I am an Albino, but I am also a human being, and I shall begin to live as one,” she finished, passionately.
Mrs. Okoro wrapped her daughter in a tight embrace. Tears of joy and liberation followed. Things would never be the same again.
The first thing Gift did was to turn on her phone. Social media was what she was going to use to spread her message. She was the ‘Gift’ needed to change the status quo. She will shine forth for the world to see.
Next, she visited a photo studio. She didn’t need raunchy, sexy pictures with a heavily made up face. The pictures will be all natural, displaying who she was.
Third, she opened an Instagram and Twitter account, and of course, her user name was Snow Princess. She followed as many local and foreign celebrities she had heard from talks at school. Then she began uploading her pictures with the hashtag #Albino #Au naturel #Self-loved #Beauty #SnowPrincess.
It didn’t take long for the canon she had lit to burst into flames. A local celebrity was amazed at her photos and brought it to the attention of a modelling agent who happened to work for Top fashion brands. The agent realized this was dynamite. He had to act fast.
One of the brands fell in love with Gift’s pictures and were ready to work with her. Mr. and Mrs. Okoro didn’t know what to make of the attention but the new look in their daughter’s eyes spurred them on. Gift had succeeded in walking the path they had both been afraid to walk.
The road to stardom was very quick for Gift. After careful deliberations, she signed a modelling contract with the Top brand. Her pictures online had already created such a buzz that her followership was in millions. Her greater sense of fulfillment came when she began receiving friendship requests from others just like her. Their messages, filled with gratitude and praise for her courage, thereby helping them to feel whole and accepted, gave her a sense of peace and accomplishment.
In an interview that her agent arranged with a top fashion show, Gift exuded poise. It was only when the interviewer asked her what had made her toe this route, that Gift showed her emotions for the first time. With a passionate voice, she said:
“I was born a curse; and was stigmatized, but I realize that if we are all the same, there will be no diversity. We are beautiful in our difference. I have chosen to be a voice, to let the world know, that no one has the right to make you feel different except you allow it.
“I am an Albino and I love my looks,” she finished, smiling with all the happiness she could muster from inside.