Nairobi News

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I am turning from black to white and it’s painful

For more than 20 years, Allan James has spent at least two hours every morning applying coloured powder on his face.

It is his only source of confidence and he cannot imagine leaving the house without first colouring his skin.

Allan, is one of the thousands of people in Kenya suffering from vitiligo, a skin condition characterised by the depigmentation of the skin.

Although the disease is a silent one, Allan said the mental anguish suffered from the stigma cannot be comprehended.

“Picture this,” he said, “you bump into a long lost friend on the streets and from the expression on his face, you can tell he is happy to see you. Then you stretch out your hand to shake his and he draws back.”

“There are times when I go to the supermarket or shop and the shopkeeper stops me from touching some items, or people refuse to buy whatever I touch because my hands are white while I am black.”

He added that there have been moments when he wished he was dead.

Allan has the characteristic white spots of the condition on his face around the eyes and lips, on his forehead and on his back and chest.

“But because I wear make-up, few people notice that I have the spots there,” he explained.

Statistics from USaid show that there are over 240,000 people with vitiligo in Kenya — and that most of them live in Nairobi and other urban centres.

The Vitiligo Society of Kenya (Visoke) is the only organisation that brings together people living with the condition.

“At the organisation, we try to find solutions relating to the stigma we undergo and also find medical help for our members,” said Allan, who is the chairman of Visoke.

He said the only place that people with the disease get treatment is at the Kenyatta National Hospital, where the affected part of the body is exposed to blue rays that colour the skin and harden it so that it can tolerate the climate.

Cosmetic alternatives

A micropigmentologist — skin specialist — practising at the Aga Khan Hospital, Jared Baabu, said that there were alternative, but very rare, treatments for vitiligo available in Kenya.

One way is to apply pigmentation ink to the affected areas. The other is to colour the area with a semi-permanent cream that helps the person maintain a presentable look without having to apply make-up daily.

“The inking process is similar to normal tattooing, except that it is not painful as the skin is not broken or burnt,” he explained.

The cost depends on the size of the discoloured areas, with the least going for Sh8,000.

“Initially, it was extremely expensive but as we worked closer with people and organisations helping the people living with the condition, the cost went down,” Dr Baabu said.

The condition is not inherited and research is taking place to establish its causes.

Members of Visoke have been collecting signatures to petition the United Nations to declare June 22 World Vitiligo Day.

The day was also be marked to celebrate the life of the singer Michael Jackson, who lived with vitiligo.