It is an uphill task convincing Nicodem Hakizimana, 27, to recount his childhood memories, especially getting him to talk about his early primary school education.
The seventh child in a family of nine, Hakizimana an albino, says he never thought he could make it even through primary education.
At age seven, his parents took him to a nearby school at Ecole Primaire Byandinze in present day Musanze District where he faced stigma from the rest of the children.
Young as he was, he started considering dropping out of school because he could not freely interact with the other children.
“Pupils would gape at me whenever I was in and out of class. They would mock and run after me…it was really hard for me,” Hakizimana says.
He dreaded every moment he set off from home to go to school.
“I would cry and ask myself why I was not born like others,” he says.
He says he grew up a loner even at home because his age mates in the neighbourhood could not talk to him, let alone play with him.
They sarcastically called him ‘mzungu’.
Despite all the disdain from age peers, Hakizimana’s parents offered him a shoulder to lean on.
He says both his parents understood his predicament and empathised with him. They would spare time every evening to ask him how his day had been at school.
“I could have dropped out in Primary One if my parents hadn’t been supportive. Every time I narrated to them about the day’s ordeal, I got some relief enough to take me through another day,” he says.
Hakizimana says his parents went to school several times to talk to teachers on how best they could work together to help him go through school without interruptions.
This, however, was not the only dilemma Hakizimana had to grapple with; his life at school was further complicated by his sight problem. He could not read from the blackboard.
“I had to stand closer to the blackboard to be able to follow the lessons, I could spend the whole day standing, I even used to take notes while standing,” he says.
Albinos usually have light skins which need regular protection. But for Hakizimana, protecting his was hard as his classmates would always remove his hat while some teachers never allowed him in school with a hat.
However as time went on, owing to his parents’ constant interactions with teachers, the situation at school improved. Pupils and teachers got used to him and realised that he was a child just like others.
“It took about three years for me to realise that it was possible for me to get far in my academic endeavours. When I was in Primary Five, my performance improved and I always featured in the top five pupils in my class,” he says.
But when he joined secondary school, another challenge emerged. He he had to go to a boarding school and he started wondering how he would live with others, without the daily support of his parents.
“No one wanted to share a bed with me, neither would anyone share with me some of the utensils students in boarding schools normally share like a bucket, basin and other appliances,” he said.
Despite this he remained focused and worked hard to excel.
He passed his O’level exams and enrolled for A’ level at Ecole Secondaire Kagogo in Burera District where he took English, Kiswahili and Kinyarwanda (EKK).
“Excelling at both primary and O’ levels encouraged me to work hard. My target was to get a university scholarship and I was totally optimistic and committed,” he says.
Indeed, he excelled at A’Level and was enrolled on scholarship at the former Kigali Institute of Education, now the College of Education of the University of Rwanda.
He was offered English and Kiswahili, specialising in Kiswahili.
He says university life was better because he had access to all basic necessities and was now reading from a computer, instead of a blackboard.
Last week, he was among the maiden graduates from the University of Rwanda and emerged second best in the Kiswahili department.
“I am happy to have made it. I thank God for His grace. I am also grateful to my family for the support,” he said.
Hakizimana is aware that it is not over until it is over. He knows that stigma against albinos remains despite his achievements todate but he plans to continue defying the odds. He says he successfully went through the worst phase of life.
“I am hopeful that soon I will get a job. I am skilled enough and ready to use my skills to compete on the labour market. I passed my six-months internship and my performance was recognised by both students and teachers,” he hopefully adds.
Abel Rwesabigwi, Hakizimana’s father, admits it was difficult for his son to study.
“I had to accept him as my son. I even ensured that teachers gave him the necessary assistance,” he says
“I supported him and he never disappointed me. I am happy he has completed university,” he adds.
Students who studied with Hakizimana describe him as an intelligent and determined student.
“He is very intelligent and hardworking. He has low vision and other inconveniences that come with being an albino but he never gets discouraged. Actually, he used to lead group discussions and he is a good teacher,” said Regine Uwineza, one of his former classmates.
Online information shows that Albinism (from Latin albus, “white”; see extended etymology, also called achromia, achromasia, or achromatosis) is a congenital disorder characterised by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin.
Albinism results from inheritance of recessive gene alleles and is known to affect all vertebrates, including humans.
Albinism is associated with a number of vision defects, such as photophobia, nystagmus and astigmatism. Lack of skin pigmentation makes for more susceptibility to sunburn and skin cancers.
In humans, there are two principal types of albinism, oculocutaneous, affecting the eyes, skin and hair, and ocular affecting the eyes only.
Most people with oculocutaenous albinism appear white or very pale as the melanin pigments responsible for brown, black, and some yellow colorations are not present. Ocular albinism results in pale blue eyes, and may require genetic testing to diagnose.