MARYANNE MUNGAI’s beauty is undeniable, but that is far beyond what catapulted the 19-year-old to the Miss Albinism East Africa throne a fortnight ago, writes EVELYN MAKENA
Certainly, her natural ginger hair, uncharacteristically light skin and a signature smile that reveals an enchanting gap between her teeth make her easy on the eyes.
But, there is something more about her. It is her quiet self-assurance, positive energy and feeling comfortable in her own skin that makes her a compelling ambassador for people living with albinism across the region.
“I’m slowly learning how to do this,” she says during our appointment at Albinism Society of Kenya offices in KICC, Nairobi. The 19-year-old marvels at how much her confidence in media interviews has grown since she was crowned Miss Albinism East Africa two weeks ago.
From attending media interviews to articulating issues that affect people living with albinism, Maryanne is slowly easing into her new role. One she considers so noble, but one that took her by surprise.
The evening she was due to strut the runway for Mr and Miss Albinism East Africa contest, she made a conscious decision to relax and enjoy every bit of the event.
Her prospects of winning seemed to diminish with every passing moment, as models from across the region took the stage in the first ever Albinism East Africa competition.
Each of them was well deserving of the crown and unique in their own right. Yet, despite her reservations, Maryanne emerged the best of them all. Amid the sustained crescendo of cheers as she took the crown, her eyes welled up with tears.
In so many ways, her win was a statement in defiance of the preordained standards of beauty. “You know how people say what weight, height or skin colour is suitable for a model? The albinism contest transcended all those barriers,” she says.
Growing up with albinism, a genetic condition that manifests through lack of pigment in the skin, eyes and hair, Maryanne was always considered different.
“Kids used to stare at me and call me mzungu or zeru zeru,” the second-born in a family of three recalls. Her condition came as a surprise to her carpenter father and shop attendant mother when she was born in Pumwani Maternity, Nairobi.
Her parents were relentless in protecting her. She spent most of her childhood dressed in hats, glasses and long-sleeved clothes to stay safe from the sun. Lack of pigment in the skin exposes people living with albinism to damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun.
It is estimated that one in every 3,900 in some populations in East Africa lives with albinism.
It’s also important to note that one in every 17 people are carriers of the albinism gene, with the prevalence being higher in African populations.
The family later moved to Lanet, Nakuru when she was three years old. Largely, Maryanne remembers having a pleasant childhood. “People were nice to me.
“I remember hearing people telling my mother that they thought she was lucky to have a fair skinned child,” she says. At Nakuru West Primary where she went for her primary school education, teachers and students were very considerate.
She remembers sympathetic teachers who always insisted that she seats in front in class, so as to be able to see the chalkboard comfortably. Visual difficulties such as sensitivity to light, involuntary eye movements and decreased vision are common among people living with albinism.
Before joining Lanet Mixed High School in 2013, the school principal notified the entire school about Maryanne and requested that everybody supports her. These kind gestures went a long way in making her school experience pleasant.
But, it was not always smooth sailing. Her family endured verbal attacks because of her condition. “One time while walking on the streets in Nakuru with my mother someone asked her if she knew that she was holding money.
I did not give it much thought but my mother was so hurt, she cried,” recalls Maryanne. She is aware that there are other people living with albinism across the region who have had far worse experiences. In parts of East Africa, particularly Tanzania, they are at the risk of abduction and mutilation as their body parts are believed to make rituals more powerful.
In Kenya, even though people living with albinism still face stigma and experience discrimination from jobs such as the discipline forces, the government has made significant strides in protecting their rights.
Through the support of Albinism Society of Kenya (ASK), the country held the first ever albinism beauty contest in Africa in 2016. This year, the contest, which attracted 30 finalists, expanded to include Tanzania and Uganda. Nominated Senator and ASK chairman Isaac Mwaura says he was inspired to start the pageant to project a positive and accepting image of people with albinism.
“I noted that it was difficult for people to use albinism and beautiful or handsome in the same sentence. Notably, there existed a vicious cycle of single mothers amongst us. Most children with albinism are brought up by single mothers and end up becoming single parents because they are not considered beautiful enough to get married off,” he says.
The pageant is not only challenging the existing beauty standards, but also revealing beauty beyond skin by nurturing talents and creating awareness across the region.
As a child, Maryanne’s protective family played a huge role in keeping her self-esteem intact. But as a teenager, she began getting self-conscious of her weight. With a weight of 80kg as a 17-year-old, she felt fat and ugly.
Funny enough, her friends in school kept insisting that she had the body and the face of a model. “There was a huge conflict within me. On one hand, people thought I could try modelling, yet, I was struggling with self-hate.
I approached several modelling agencies for a chance but I would come home discouraged, since the girls there were so thin unlike me,” she adds. In 2016, Maryanne auditioned for the first Mr and Miss Albinism Kenya contest, but did not qualify because of her age.
The frustrations about her weight and missed opportunities in modelling sank her into depression. Thankfully, she sought help during the early stages and has been recovering ever since. “It was so scary, the sadness was unbearable.
I chose to go to a counsellor on my own without involving my mother because she would freak out if she knew,” she says. As part of her healing process, Maryanne started working out and has since cut her weight to 60kg.
She also made a conscious decision to celebrate herself just as she is. “Whether plus size or slender, and no matter my skin colour, I am absolutely comfortable,” adds the pageant winner.
She is aware that the crown is not simply about skin colour and acknowledges the enormity of the task that lies ahead of her. A trained baker at Rift Valley Institute of Business Studies and an alumni of the Kenya Youth Empowerment Programme, Maryanne is eager to use her crown to create awareness about albinism especially at the grassroots level.
“Some think that the condition is a curse and others consider us a means to riches. But, we are just like any other person; the only difference is that we do not have melanin. My challenge to everyone is that you love us, accept us and give us a helping a hand in areas where we struggle,” she says.
Alongside the reigning Mr Albinism East Africa 2018 Emmanuel Silas Shadrack from Tanzania, she will be the albinism goodwill ambassador in the region. At home, her win is of great significance, especially to her younger brother who also has the condition. “This will encourage him to go for his dream fearlessly,” she adds.
Cooking pastries, dancing and modelling are favourite pastimes for Maryanne. She has recently started talking openly about her depression and aspires to become a counsellor to help people dealing with mental health issues.
Through different initiatives, Kenya is emerging a leader in protecting albinism rights in the continent. The progress towards inclusion and representation of people living with albinism in Kenya is impressive, with initiatives and achievements that include nominating a legislator with albinism to the senate, having a lady judge in the high court, electing two MCAs in Bungoma county, producing the top KCPE candidate in 2017 and introducing a government programme that works with 191 hospitals across the country to provide sunscreen to people with albinism. According to Mwaura, the pageants will be an avenue for Kenya to provide leadership in protecting the rights of people living with albinism across the continent.