On his upcoming visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with a remarkable young woman, Nyota Mapendo, a survivor of gender-based violence and an advocate for people with albinism.
Gender-based violence is unfortunately increasing in the North Kivu province, DRC, where conflict has been raging for over 20 years, forcing millions of people to flee their homes. 18-years-old Nyota is one of the over seventy thousand brave women who, in 2020, came forward to tell their story of survival.
One of twelve siblings, Nyota was born with an absence of pigmentation (melanin) in her hair, skin, and eyes – a medical condition called albinism oculocutaneous. “When I was born to this world, my parents accepted me although I was albino, as the will of God”, says Nyota. “They treated me as they treated the other children”, she adds, full of gratitude.
The attitude of her parents enabled Nyota to be accepted by the wider family. However, already very young, she suffered discrimination within her community. In many countries in Africa, people with albinism are still discriminated and persecuted due to beliefs attributing them magic powers. As a consequence, they are often killed and dismembered, their bodies sold to those who believe it will bring them richness and power. Having sexual intercourse with albinos is also believed to heal AIDS and make people rich.
As an albino girl, Nyota suffered prejudice and discrimination in primary school. She did not have many friends and she remembers bitterly: “When people saw me in the street, they spit and said: I hope my mother never gives birth to an albino. This made me sad. I told myself: Why do I belong to a different race?”
Since 2016, Nyota has been participating in a JRS mental health and psychosocial support project, funded by MISEREOR, aimed at accompanying internally displaced people.
One day in 2020, after walking her nephews to their grandparents, Nyota was stopped in the road by a group of men with knives and sticks. They kidnapped her, took her to an abandoned school, and raped her for two hours. Once at home, she told her mother what happened and was immediately taken to a health centre.
Sometime after the first violence, Nyota went to collect water from a house and was again raped by a man who believed intercourse with an albino woman would make him rich. This time, Nyota got pregnant and saw her life collapse.
She, who loved studying, was forced to stay home from school. Luckily, after giving birth to a baby girl and thanks to JRS’s psychosocial and advocacy support, Nyota went back to school. She remembers: “The school accepted me and gave me a place in class where I could properly see the blackboard, so I solved my vision problem.”
JRS not only defended Nyota’s right to an education but also raised awareness throughout the community about the rights of albino people. “Before, I felt discriminated against and rejected,” remembers Nyota, “[now] I feel happy and valued.”
In two years, Nyota will finish secondary school and she already knows what she wants to do: “Thanks to the support I received, I am able to have a vision for my life: finish my studies and become a humanitarian worker, so as to reach out to vulnerable people in need”.
Having experienced discrimination since a young age, Nyota wants to spread a message on behalf of albino people: “Stop discrimination and stigmatization of albino people. They are all creatures of God like everyone else. Albinos should not give up. They should never stop studying.”
Given her life story, Nyota is thrilled to be meeting Pope Francis, a fellow champion of the most forgotten and marginalized, and to be able to share with him her message of support for albino people and survivors of gender-based violence.