Alhassane says he never had any friends until this year…
“I was born as an albino person and the only one like this in the village,” he says. “Other children rejected me. When they saw me coming, they would move away from me. What hurt me most was when they said that I would infect them if I came close to them. I was so unhappy because none of the children in the village wanted me as a friend. I was often ready to fight anyone who teased me.”
But at a Child-Centred Space for children in Guinea, 12-year-old Alhassane made new friends. Ironically, many of them had been shunned themselves after their loved ones were infected with the deadly Ebola virus. Now these children knew the kind of loneliness Alhassane had experienced his whole life, and it taught them greater understanding and empathy.
“I played alone,” says Alhassane, a 12-year-old boy from a village in Guinea. “I couldn’t go to school often, because my presence in class would make the other children not pay attention to the lessons.”
Many people, even children, learned how it felt to be shunned or whispered about during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa; anyone who had contact with a sick person was often not welcome in schools, offices or others’ homes. People were terrified of the virus.
But Alhassane had known all about this kind of loneliness long before the epidemic because he is the only albino person in his village. Ironically, the Ebola outbreak would lead to greater understanding of his condition and a willingness among other children to be Alhassane’s friends.
According to the Mayo Clinic, albinism is a group of inherited disorders characterized by little or no production of the pigment melanin. Alhassane has very light skin, hair and eyes, and is sensitive to sun exposure. Often, people with albinism also have poor eyesight and a much higher risk of skin cancer. They also experience discrimination, particularly in places where the condition is not understood.
Alhassane’s village was hit hard by the Ebola virus in 2014 and 2015, and many children who lost loved ones to the disease went to a Child-Centred Space (CCS) started by ChildFund Guinea with support from UNICEF. Alhassane was lucky because his family did not get the virus, but he, too, benefited from going to the CCS.
The centre united orphans and other children who spent a couple of hours together every day under the guidance of social workers who provided psychosocial support. They played and interacted together, expressed their feelings, told stories and learned how to accept each other.
“For me, it was not necessary to go to the centre,” Alhassane says, because he hadn’t been personally affected by Ebola. “I refused many times when I was asked to join the other children at the center. I asked, ‘What good will it do going to a place where the others will reject me?’”
However, after many invitations, Alhassane finally joined the other children at the center. He still had doubts: “I thought it couldn’t work. I saw all the children around me as enemies because they had always hated me — they rejected me and considered me a sick person. How could they accept me this time?”
But after a while, things started to change for Alhassane. He gradually made friends and joined in many activities at the centre.
Children of all ages play circle games, solve puzzles and listen to stories. No one picks on Alhassane or shuns him.
“Today, things have changed for good,” he says. “I have discovered a new life with friends. They have accepted me, and I feel confident with them. When I’m not there, they search for me to join them in play. I feel happy when I am with my friends, thanks to the CCS.”
(With thanks to Arthur Tokpah of ChildFund Guinea)