What is life like for Britain's 3,000 albinos? Paul George reports on a rare but often devastating condition
"When I am at the pub with my friends people look at me and laugh," says 18-year-old Kristina Venning. "And at school I have been called all sorts of things, from Father Christmas to Red Eyes."

Kristina is albino. The prejudice, derision and sense of alienation she has suffered since childhood are shared by all albinos. "I was first called names when I went to junior school," says Kristina, who is studying for her A-levels in Norfolk. "Children would say nasty things and stare at me. A couple of the boys used to trip me up. Other pupils would ask me things about albinism, but I didn't want people asking questions, because I didn't want to admit to being different.

"Whenever people picked on me I just ignored them. But deep down I felt really hurt. I hadn't done anything to them." Despite feeling alienated and rejected throughout her childhood, Kristina never confided in anyone, even her parents, not because her parents didn't care but because she was convinced that talking about her condition would make it all the more real. When she was upset, she would simply withdraw to her bedroom and cry herself to sleep.

Kristina is one of the 3,000 albinos living in the UK. Worldwide, one in 20,000 people is thought to be born with the condition. Albinism is a genetic disorder which requires both parents to carry the faulty gene, but even then there is only a one in four chance that the child will actually be born with the deficient pigmentation that characterises the albino. Reduced or non-existent pigmentation in turn produce the poor eyesight, white, blonde or yellow hair and pale skin that characterise albinos.

All albinos are subjected to prejudice, but it is during the sensitive school years that young albinos particularly suffer. Many, born severely short-sighted, have to wear extremely thick glasses from an early age. They have no problems reading books, but reading the blackboard can be difficult. More sympathetic teachers will encourage pupils suffering from albinism to sit at the front of the classroom or allow them to stand in front of the blackboard during the class. Other eye problems include squinting, photophobia or acute sensitivity to light, eased by sunglasses, and nystagmus or a constant wobbling of the eyes, eased by turning one's head to one side. They also have difficulty playing fast-moving ball games, such as tennis and squash.

Nigerian-born Ola Thompson, 24, is a black albino, one of 50 living in the UK. He has typical negroid features, but his skin is a pale pink and his hair is a sandy yellow. He believes that non-white albinos suffer a triple prejudice. Not only are they ridiculed for lacking pigmentation, but they are frequently spurned by other blacks and Asians for being different. Plus they still have to contend with run-of-the-mill racism.

"When I was a kid of about four in Africa, other children used to follow me down the road and sing derogatory songs about me being a 'white man'," says Ola. "People also used to walk up to me and press my skin to make it go white and then watch it go red again."

When he was seven Ola was brought to England by his father, who believed his son would have access to better educational facilities to help him cope with his albinism. He was sent to a boarding school and his father returned to Nigeria two years later. Ola now lives in London. But ever since his arrival in Britain, he has been mocked by other blacks. "Occasionally black people stop me in the streets and greet me in a blatantly pejorative manner. Others make mocking remarks. One time I sat on the top deck of a bus and there were four teenage boys sitting at the back with their girlfriends. I could hear comments being made about me and loud chuckles. When I stood up to leave the gang rolled around laughing."

Like Kristina, Ola suffered discrimination throughout his school years. "Some fellow pupils used to have it in for me. A few in my year used to call me 'nigger gone wrong'. Others would chase me down the street. At least if you are a white albino, you are seen as being British. You may get the piss taken out of you, but it will be within certain confines. If you are black, the parameters are greater. By calling me a 'nigger gone wrong' those children jeered at me on two levels."

After leaving school Ola studied at London University. Since graduating almost two years ago he has been unemployed. Bouts of depression have led him to experiment with drugs, largely in an attempt to escape the realities of albinism. One reason for this growing unease, he believes, is that he has been unable to form sexual relationships with women, something which he hoped and believed would right itself with time. He has now become increasingly self-conscious and for the first time in his life has starting trying to hide his distinguishing features, wearing a baseball cap so that people will not spot his yellow hair.

"People gawk at me all the time," says Ola. "The intensity of the looks gets particularly oppressive on public transport. Fellow passengers just stare and stare. There are those who try to be subtle about it. And those who don't. Such people continue to gape, even when I have cottoned on to them."

Ola does not know any other albino and feels isolated. On two occasions he has spotted other albinos in the crowd and has been overwhelmed by a desire to reach out and hug them.

Not all albinos have to face the prejudice alone. Jenny McDermott, 20, and her sister, Caroline, 23, are both albinos. "Having an elder sister with albinism helped because teachers at school knew what to expect and to make allowances for my poor eyesight," says Jenny, now at Glasgow University. "It also made it easier for me to understand and come to terms with my situation."

Jenny's father, Henry, 44, is the secretary of the Albino Fellowship, the world's first self-help group for albinos, established in 1979 by Dr William Taylor, a retired eye specialist. The Albino Fellowship now has sister associations in numerous countries, including Belgium, Australia and Puerto Rico. It has 350 members.

"There was an obvious need for an organisation like the fellowship," says Henry. "The medical profession has not given albinism much attention because it is neither debilitating nor life threatening. Consequently, we try to spread what limited information there is. People often get in touch just for reassurance. Sometimes they have been told scare stories by doctors. Women who give birth to albino children are given all sorts of misinformation. Some are told their kids will never see, others that their baby will never walk."

Henry has helped to establish bodies in Tanzania and the US, where albinism is largely caused by inter-marriage, which exacerbates the genetic fault that leads to the condition. In Tanzania, levels are high because of inter- tribal coupling while in the US most people affected by albinism are among the insular Amish community.

The fellowship offers solace, inspiration and friendship. It is by forming a close relationship with an albino her own age that Kristina, for one, has come to terms with being an albino. "My friend has been able to help me with my problems, and the relationship has affected my life in quite a big way."

Hilary Hill, 36, joined because her two sons, Martin, aged eight, and Daniel, 10, are both albinos. She is convinced that albinos compensate for their myopia by over-achieving. Both Hilary's sons are academically gifted and Daniel is due to move up to a secondary school a year early. "Dr Taylor did a study on the inherent abilities of albinos," says Ms Hill, "by comparing the academic achievements of those with the condition with their non-albino siblings. In every case analysed, the albino ended up with the better qualifications and job."

Famous albinos have included the Rev Albert Spooner, the actress Anna Pitch, reggae singer Yellow Man, Malian musician Salif Keita and German rock artist Heino. It is also believed by many in the fellowship that Noah was an albino.

"It is now possible to test in the womb for albinism and some doctors have suggested offering abortions to women carrying albinos," says Ms Hill. "It would be criminal to abort a child on those grounds. Albinos are useful members of society. Given the choice I would have my two again. I would not change them for the world."

Membership of the Albino Fellowship is open not only to those who suffer from albinism, but also to relatives, doctors, teachers and others concerned with the welfare of albinos. Anyone wishing to join should write to Henry McDermott, secretary of the organisation, at 16 Neward Crescent, Prestwick KA9 2JB; or telephone him on 01292 470336.

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