by Lindsay Wilson
The story about the violent murders and disfigurement of people with albinism in East Africa broke in the international press during the Kenyan elections of 2007. News stories linked the murders to the practice of witchcraft. There was little mention as to why the numbers of attacks grew so quickly at this particular time. The international press flocked to Tanzania to cover the story, make documentaries, and take pictures.
In 2008 in response to international attention, the Tanzanian president banned traditional healers in an effort to show that he took the situation seriously. The ban stayed for eight months, it ended when the president lifted it because Tanzanian elections were approaching and politicians wanted to be able to visit healers. I was told that traditional healing (a term I prefer to ‘witchcraft’) is a well-known secret, most people go. Here’s where the issue gets more complicated: traditional healing and traditional healers are very important leaders and teachers in Tanzania. They help many communities and can be the best ally against corrupt practices. The answer isn’t to ban traditional healers - they are grass-roots leaders and an important source of healing in their communities - the answer is to target those that are corrupt.
‘Blind’ really began to take shape with the visits to the schools. The children in my play are drawn from my experiences with the children at these schools. One young boy with albinism named Kevi would wait for us to come see him at the school. He would wait for us, behind the gate, hanging off its bars. He followed the evaluation team everywhere. Although we were warned not to play favourites with the children, he was a boy who very obviously needed care and attention. Another boy named Joseph, who was blind, and spoke impeccable English, wanted to go to university when he left. The children at this particular school took care of each other. They once told us in an interview, “We have nowhere solid to hold onto.” Whose responsibility were they? The government’s? The NGO’s? UNICEF’s? The older children took care of the younger ones and it was the resilience and love I saw in the children towards each other that shaped what ‘Blind’ has become. Because the children have nowhere to hold onto, they hold onto each other.
The play has taken about three years to develop. It is difficult to write about another culture as it raises questions about appropriation. I knew that I wanted the play to be the children’s story but how I would tell it was a struggle for me. I knew that at the heart was the conflict I felt about trying to help and observing / witnessing people’s pain and trauma and not knowing what to do with it. We were given questions to ask the children at the school; I took photos of the children and the school but we couldn’t ask them questions about what had brought them there. The fear (and rightfully so) is that you’ll reactivate a child’s grief and shame. If they share what brought them to the school, you’re asking them to relive something very painful, and then you leave. And they stay where they are. If nothing changes after they tell you their story it can reaffirm a child’s sense of helplessness over their own narrative.
When I was there I was fortunate enough to have met with Tanzanian theatre artists. Theatre is different there. It incorporates elements of poetry recitation, storytelling, dance, and acting. The storytelling aspect of Tanzanian theatre spoke to me. My dramaturge, Deena Aziz, and I, discussed how powerful taking back one’s personal narrative is. I imagined the blind child in the photograph as a storyteller who could take the troubled stories of his albino friends and transform them into something that could allow them to heal. They could sing to each other, tell stories, they could transform and heal each other. This, of course, is tremendous pressure for a child to bear, so the witness / observer in ‘Blind’ - a young woman named Hannah who comes from Canada to help - plays an important role. She becomes the person who can listen to this child’s story, and by listening allows him to place himself at the centre of his story. She is the one person who doesn’t pressure him to act other than himself and sees something remarkable in him: he is a healer. He is not placing the impetus to act in Hannah’s hands; he is becoming the owner of his story and then can move forward to heal others by allowing them to do the same.