What is a one-arm Zeruzeru doing at a security guard interview? I could sense their disbelief but I didn’t let their gaze deter me. I had travelled far for this job. I needed it.
I’d put on my best outfit – a dark blue polo shirt tucked in my combat-green cadet trousers. I adjusted my sun hat and waited in line.
‘Yona Kazadi,’ the receptionist called.
My heart was thumping but with my head held high, I walked into the interview room. Two men sat beside a woman behind a large wooden table. They had stacks of paper in front of them. I held out my hand to greet them. The woman asked me to sit. I took off my sunglasses and sun hat, and sat on the wooden chair in front of them. The room was quiet except for the buzz of the ceiling fan, as its blades sliced through the heat of the room.
Dressed in a yellow hijab and a dark blue long sleeved dress, the woman introduced herself as Miriam, the human resources manager. The men were superintendents. From the way they looked at me, I knew they wanted to know just one thing: what in the hell made me – a man with a missing arm – want to be a security guard?
‘Tell us about yourself,’ the woman said.
And so, I sat before them and told them.
It was the dead of the night, I said. I lay awake on my thin sponge Dodoma mattress listening to the sound of rats running on the plywood above me. I tried to force myself to sleep. I had been having trouble sleeping since Baba Joseph told me it was time to move out of the home. I was almost 18, he explained – an adult in the eyes of the law, and old enough to survive the streets. But I wasn’t ready; I didn’t know what I would do to survive in Serema – a town seething with hate for people of my kind.
The faint squeak of the rusting hinges of our front gate broke into my thoughts. It might have been my mind playing tricks. It’s hard not to be paranoid when you’ve been hunted all your life. I heard footsteps outside my window. I held my breath and forced myself to lay still. Sweat ran down my brow, and my mind began to churn with images of the massacre of the thirty children asleep in the rooms of this asylum – and me, Yona Kazadi, unable to protect them.
I tried to pray but God has always been elusive to me, even though my grandmother and Baba Joseph, our guardian, insisted he was real.
From infancy, I was called a child of the devil. They said my mother slept with Shetani, which is why my skin and eyes are pale, and my hair the colour of maize. People pointed when I passed and called me Zeruzeru. They spat into their clothing whenever they were close, to protect themselves from the evil they thought I carried. They feared my blinking eyes, and the wobbling of my head.
But that night I clutched the rosary beads my grandmother gave me, and said, ‘God, if you exist, if you hear me, protect us.’
It felt like a defeat – an acceptance of my own weakness – but I wanted to believe that someone out there was more powerful than the evil in the hearts of men. Where was God all these years we have been ridiculed and killed? Where was his power when machetes chopped off our limbs? And when he created us, did he run out of melanin?
The abduction and killings had started with people calling albinos dili. Witch doctors had told them that potions made with albino bones could make them rich, and the younger the zeruzeru, the more potent the potion.
I was living with Bibi Ghasia, my grandmother, in Siwanda when the rumour started. Siwanda was a village on the plains, with a handful of trees and red mud huts with thatched grass roofs. The red plains rolled all the way into the clouds.
We lived on one of the hills, kept chickens, grew cassava and cultivated millet on a small patch of land in front of our house. Abandoned pits of old gold mines pockmarked the bare valley beneath us. In the distance, we could see the shiny aluminium roofs of Victoria Gold – the Mzungu’s mine. People weren’t allowed near it but, occasionally, locals broke in to steal gold.
I’d just started primary school when news of albino abductions became commonplace. The prime minister begged people to stop the killings, but that didn’t help.
My school was 5 kilometres from our house on the other side of the valley, where the Christian mission and the church were. With a khanga draped over my head to protect me from the sun, my grandmother walked me to school every morning. She was old but strong, and was never without her panga – a machete secured to her waist by a tight khanga. She wore a red rosary on her neck. I always felt safe with her. People feared her; they called her a witch. But Bibi told me to ignore them. One day they will get tired of their own ignorance.
It wasn’t long before the superstition about albinos reached Siwanda. Impoverished miners began seeking our bones.
My grandmother and I were walking to school one morning when two miners wielding machetes launched themselves at us from a fence. I can still hear the scream from my grandmother when they caught me. I remember her charging with her panga, and trying to drag me from their hands. I remember the crack of bones as a blunt panga shredded my flesh. I remember the blood, the sharp dizzying pain, and my grandmother’s shivering body against mine. I remember the silence from her God.
A worker from the mission found me later – my grandmother had died protecting me. They said it was a miracle I was alive. My forearm was barely attached to my elbow. They brought me to Lubondo hospital where, they said, it had to be amputated. I was later taken to Kivulini asylum.
Kivulini means ‘under the shade’. I was nine years old when they took me to live there. It was in the outskirts of Serema. A red-bricked wall topped with broken glass enclosed a half-acre compound, which consisted of a large dormitory for children, a few classrooms, a chicken hut, a pigsty, and a small vegetable garden. Baba Joseph opened the doors to this place in 2007, after his wife and son had been murdered by a gang of men. He doesn’t talk about what happened, but I’d seen the story in the newspaper. We all have similar stories: fugitives running from human poachers – some even from their own parents.
I got up from my mattress; I couldn’t just lay there and wait for something to happen.
‘Courage is not the absence of fear, my children,’ Baba Joseph told us. ‘I know you are afraid, but you must learn to live even when you are afraid.’
I tiptoed to the corner of the room and grabbed a spear from the stash of weapons I kept there. A machete would make me more like them, and I refused to be like them. I tiptoed to the door, and with a shaking hand, I turned the key of the Solex padlock. The door opened into the room where all the boys slept. The girls’ dormitory was on the other side of the wall, but they left and entered through a different door. Sophia, the only other adult, took care of the girls and helped in the kitchen.