- Book: Then She was Born
- Location: Mwanza, Tanzania
- Author: Cristiano Gentili
A zeru zeru (phantom, meaning albino) baby is born to Juma. Tanzania has the highest birth rate of babies with albinism according to the novel, and such white skin in the local populace is associated with bad spirits. Albino babies are often left to die or put out to be trampled upon by a herd of cows. At other times the hair from the head of an albino is revered and if wound into fishermen’s nets will enhance a catch. Dead or alive, the body of an albino is valuable – superstition and misgiving are rife. The father of the baby shuns the little creature, often only referred to as ‘it’ and grandmother Nkamba takes over the care. For now, this young albino girl has been spared by the Spirits of the Lake…..
Sarah and Charles Fielding live in the White House on the island of Ukewere, in the Mwanza region of Northern Tanzania, Charles runs a local mine (Charles Fielding Gold Limited) and usually has a good eye for a profitable investment. He starts planning for a hospital, ostensibly catering for the local populace, where AIDS is problematic. The local Shaman – Zuberi – is none too pleased by this turn of events, as a hospital facility is perceived as a threat to traditional medicine. Zuberi has the use of albino body parts in his arsenal, useful for ‘curing’ all manner of ailments. In fact, horrifyingly, hunters will still search out albino people to harvest their body parts for traditional medicine.
At one point the baby, Adimu, lands with the Fieldings. Sarah is tempted to take the little waif in as her own, their skin colour being on the same light spectrum, but the advice is to return the baby to its family of origin. However, a connection between the young girl and Sarah has now been forged and their paths cross several times. What makes an albino child different from a mzungu (white person)? This is a question that plagues little Adimu, she is similar, yet African and ultimately so different and sadly belonging nowhere.
Adimu grows up, with each rainy season marking a year in the calendar. Will she be able to attend the protected community for people with albinism in the Tanga region? Whatever her future she will have to remain vigilant throughout her lifetime.
Fortunes in this small, rural area of Tanzania change, especially for Charles. Threaded through the text are themes around the legacy of white rule, Christianity (in the form of Father Andrew), traditional culture, witchcraft, colonialism, mercenaries, greed and power, identity, displacement, rejection and difference… It becomes quite a Pot Pourri as the story unfolds.
The style of writing is very correct and quite formal, reminiscent of mid 20th Century diction; in fact it can feel quite worthy at times. It is a work in translation (from Italian), which may be the issue here. The Fieldings, for example, give Adimu ‘eyeglasses’ (which is acceptable in American English but feels old-fashioned in UK English). We know that the setting is contemporary because of the mention of AIDS, total-block sunscreen and that President Kikwete is in power, who was in office 2005-2015. The elision between the dovetailing storylines is a little stilted and overall the narrative errs on the side of telling rather than showing. The responses of the characters to various events are simplistic, and a little more fleshing out would, I feel, have made considerable difference to the quality of the characters that trail across the pages. An experienced editor could certainly add a greater 3-dimensionality to the storyline and nudge the narrative onto a more seamless trajectory.
It is certainly a thought-provoking subject, alarming that this practice is still rife. The book is notably published by #HelpAfricanAlbinos and the team behind the novel highlight the issues facing this minority group. The plight of those suffering albinism is also at the heart of Michael Stanley’s “Deadly Harvest” set in Botswana. It is a real Human Rights issue that deserves a wider understanding and action.