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‘i am a black woman with white skin’
Her family is black, but with her porcelain complexion Refilwe Modiselle, 21, is often mistaken for a white woman or a foreigner. She talks about growing up with albinism in a country where it can be seen as a curse
‘I was born in Rockville, Soweto, to two loving parents who always made me feel special and loved. My mother told me that when I was born, the nurses at the hospital said I looked like a perfect doll – porcelain-white skin, big green-grey eyes and none of the skin patches or defects often associated with albino babies. Growing up, I was adored by my family and neighbours. They used to call me the walking, talking doll. I have two younger sisters, but I was never treated differently from them and they didn’t see me as different until they started going to school. Then they would beg me to fetch them from school, because they wanted their friends to see me. Their friends saw me as a novelty and would ask me questions about my hair, my make-up and my friends. But I also think it’s my character; people are comfortable around me and forget I’m an albino because it’s not something I focus

‘There are guys who have seen me as a possible trophy’

on. To my sister’s friends, I was their cool older sister. And they were proud to be seen with me. If you raise an albino child and make them feel they have limitations, they will perpetuate that belief. It’s true that in black culture, being an albino is seen as a curse; a burden. But as a family, we didn’t care. Around the neighbourhood, some classified me white, but I never felt excluded. Of course, I had my fair share of being teased. Every now and again a bunch of guys walking past on the street – or a group of kids – would shout out “leswafi”, which is albino in Tswana, and because I always felt completely normal, having my difference pointed out like that hurt. But it’s just a word that describes what I am and it didn’t happen often enough to affect my self-confidence. When I was a bit older, I found out that some people thought my mother had been involved with a white guy – that’s how they

In Sa, one in 4 000  people has albinism.  Professor arnold  Christianson of the  Wits Human Genetics  department says the  correct term for  people with this  genetic condition   is ‘woman, man or  child with albinism,  because it  emphasises that they  are people’. There   is definitely stigma  attached to albinism,  says Christianson.  One belief is that  people with albinism  are a curse and some  children with albinism  are ostracized by the  community, rejected  by their families   or even killed. 

explained my existence. I asked my mother how she felt about me being an albino, and she said she didn’t feel anything except love. “You were my child, my baby,” she said, “my first-born little girl. That’s all that mattered to me.” As a teen, I started to question why I was born with albinism; it was a niggling question in the back of my mind, but that vanished when I turned 13 and Y magazine asked me to take part in a fashion shoot. That’s when I realised that I could be considered beautiful and be a model if I wanted to. I was sold on the idea of being a model; I’d have the opportunity to show the country I was beautiful. I realised I could challenge conventional notions of beauty and the criteria required for appearing in a fashion magazine. People started referring to me as beautiful more and more – inside and out. I owe that to my mom, partly, because she allowed me to be whatever I wanted to be. She didn’t try to make me downplay my personality, or keep me out of the public eye. She walked with me with pride. She also paid special attention to my skin. She would take time off

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South african artist Pieter Hugo’s portraits  of people with albinism have graced  numerous photographic magazine covers  and arguably made his career. Himself  blonde, blue-eyed and six feet tall (left),  Hugo’s albino portraits are meant to force  direct eye contact with people whose  appearance sometimes causes discomfort. 

from work once a month, even when I was a baby, and take me to a skin specialist for special protective skin treatment. Recently, I was walking around Rosebank when a woman came up to me and complimented me on my skin and confidence. She said she had an albino niece who stayed cooped up in the house because of her low self-esteem. I recounted how my mother raised me. I told her to not make her niece feel any different; to tell her to stop feeling sorry for herself because she was just like any other living being and to go to a dermatologist to see what would work for her skin.


Sa photographer Pieter  Hugo’s portraits of people  with albinism include ‘Sam,  Klein Karoo, 2003’ (above)  and (top, from left) ‘Raymond  nteo, Johannesburg, 2003’,  ‘Malebina Mahloko,  Johannesburg, 2003’ and  ‘Thami Mawe, Johannesburg,  2003’. For more info about  Pieter Hugo’s work, visit

‘It’s true that in black culture, being an albino is seen as a burden’

INTERVIEW Zodwa Kumalo PHOTOGRAPHS alexis fotiadis/glamour mechanics and pieter hugo (courtesy of michael stevenson) REfIlWE mOdISEllE’S mAkE-uP marilyn du preeZ/glamour mechanics

I don’t feel the need to be a spokesperson for albinos. There are a few albino societies and groups around and I have been approached once or twice to join or lead a group. As much as I think that a lot of people get strength and courage from surrounding themselves with people who look like they do and sharing similar experiences, it’s not something I want to be part of. I love wearing make-up and doing my hair and playing around with clothes. It began when I suddenly blossomed in Grade 10 and started caring about my appearance. I learned to love being me and finding my inner woman. At school I was quite sheltered; I focused on my schoolwork and never went out to parties or dated. I went to my first big party at the end of my matric year. I’d love to find that right somebody to spend my life with. I’ve dated a few guys, but nothing serious yet. When it comes to dating I go through the same experiences any other woman would. I have trust issues, so sometimes I just prefer to stay single. Otherwise I take my time to suss out a guy – I have to be sure of his intentions. I’ve found that most men respond to me the way they would

to any woman they’re attracted to, but there is a slight fascination as I’m not what could be considered the “norm”. Most guys think I’m exotic: I’ve been asked if I’m British, Namibian and even Brazilian! Yes, there are guys who have seen me as a possible trophy, someone who will look good on their arm, but I’ve also met some genuine guys who appreciate every aspect of me as Refilwe. I get stared at a lot, but I’m used to it. I usually try and work out whether strangers are giving me a good stare or a bad stare. I either smile politely at them and they usually smile back, or I ask them if there’s a problem, usually in Tswana or Zulu. It confuses them, because the reason a lot of them are staring is because they can’t make out whether I’m white or black! But mostly, onlookers simply can’t believe what they’re seeing. It does get annoying at times but mostly I just laugh; they’re making fools of themselves. A friend once told me she wished she looked like me and it made me feel on top of the world. Usually I was the one wishing that I looked like my friend – and here she was, making me feel so special. As a joke, I suggested she ask God to bleach her skin. I like to think I am unique rather than different and I believe I am blessed.’ n Refilwe Modiselle is a new business development manager, musician and model. She lives in Johannesburg.

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