Mbali was different because he was born an albino. And because they were poor his single mom could not afford the expensive creams that people born with this condition normally use to protect their skin. So Mbali’s skin was always peeling off, both in winter and in summer.
But the worst of his problems was his poor eyesight and the fact that is eyes were affected badly by sunlight. He had to wear thick glasses to see, and outdoors in the sunlight he had to wear sunglasses too, plus a wide-brimmed hat. His lips tended to burn and crack and so he always carried a small tub of Zambuk ointment.
“Haaa! It is blind! The monkey is blind.”
He had got used to these hurtful words that would be followed by laughter from the other boys. Those who thought the boys who mocked Mbali were cruel were too frightened to stand up for him, and remained silent. Looking cool and belonging to a gang in the township was the ‘in’ thing and they didn’t want anything to jeopardise that.
The worst of the bullies was Senzo; he was always making fun of Mbali. Whenever he asked Mbali for something, and he didn’t have it, he would punch him. Sometimes he would punch him for no given reason at all. But Mbali knew the reason, of course.
There was Ludwe as well – the playboy of the high school and the streets of the townships too. He liked to set girls up on a fake blind date with Mbali and then watch their reaction when they met him.
People who didn’t even know Mbali avoided him, believing that if they came near him they would become infected by him. Cruel superstitions are still rife, not only in villages, but in the townships too.
No-one thought Mbali was good at anything. No-one ever wanted to be close to him and get to know the person beneath the skin.
He was just the boy with red, cracked lips, and peeling skin. He was the boy with thick glasses and a huge hat. He was the boy who had no girlfriend isishumane senkawu – a laughing stock.
“You must never take those things to heart. Don’t you ever worry about what other people think of you. You know that your family loves you and one day you will meet a woman who will love you for who you are. You are very smart, my boy,” his mother would tell him. She was his strength to face the cruelty he encountered outside their home.
When Mbali heard stories on the news of albino children being abducted and brutally killed or mutilated for muti, because some people believed the killing would bring them luck or a long life, it made him angry, and fearful, and very, very sad.
But, despite his struggles socially, Mbali did well academically and passed his matric with well, earning a big scholarship to university. But he still felt lonely and sad on campus. Nobody had introduced themselves to him, until the day he met Buyiswa …
Mbali first heard Buyiswa before seeing seen her.
“You are new here, right? I’m Buyiswa,” she called down to him.
Mbali squinted up to see a girl leaning over the stair railing above him, looking down at him as he waited outside his tutor’s room to hand in an essay.
“Yes, I am new. And you?” Mbali called up to her.
He was standing a few metres away from a group of male students who were laughing and whistling at a group of girls in front of them. Suddenly Mbali was overcome with shyness. Before the girl on the staircase could answer he had taken out his phone and pretended to be checking his messages. When he looked back up a moment later, she was gone.
It was safer this way, he told himself. He had learned to protect himself from pain, but he always wondered what it would feel like to be loved by someone other than his family – especially by a woman. He believed that no woman in her right mind would ever fall in love with him and sometimes the thought made him cry.
Tell us what you think: Why are some ‘normal’ people so cruel to people with disabilities? What do they get out of their bullying?