Cristiano Gentili was working in Africa when he discovered that tens of thousands of Africans are born albinos, and thus suffer a lifetime of discrimination.
Seeing how these people are literally hunted by witchdoctors, and persecuted, he was determined to help.
Gentili decided to write a book that he called “Ombra Bianca” (White Shadow) to use fiction to draw attention to the plight of these people.
He sought the support of thousands of people from various countries and spheres of expertise. But the only one who answered him was Pope Francis.
Now his initiative, which was launched Wednesday, has drawn international attention.
Before meeting with Pope Francis this week and launching the advocacy campaign to raise awareness for African albinos, Gentili sat down with ZENIT at the Vatican.
ZENIT: Could you give a little background about yourself and why and how you became involved with this cause?
Gentili: I was an international civil servant for an international organization for more than 10 years. When I was posted in Africa, I was in Sudan, Darfur, then I discovered the inconceivable realty of African albinos. Then, I took a year-long sabbatical from my work, and traveled extensively through Tanzania with human rights activists, to learn more. We went around rural areas and and various other areas of Tanzania to discover the reality of these people. We wanted to see what were their living conditions. After that, I was thinking what would be the best way to raise awareness in the so-called “civilized world” about the disease.
We are talking about tens of thousands of people in Africa with albinism. The continent’s rate of this disease is among the highest in the world. Tens of thousands of Africans suffer from it. So, I was thinking what could be the best tool to raise awareness, so I decided to write a novel, called “Ombra Bianco” (White Shadow). It is fictional, but inspired by real people and stories.
I wrote this novel, and, to put it simply, wrote more than 4,000 letters to important people to get some support, but no one answered me– except the Pope.
ZENIT: Could you describe the disease of albinism?
Gentili: Yes, thank you for the question. I call it in Italian, “the last of the last” because these people are discriminated against the day they are born until the day they are dead because they are white in Africa and because they are considered as phantoms or spirits. They are discriminated against by their families, by their parents. Some are not given a name at birth, as they don’t belong to the clan, to their own family. Truly on the periphery, they grow up being discriminated against, in every way possible.
Also, they are hunted. Witchdoctors believe albinos can bring good luck. They believe that with their limbs, they’ll discover gold, catch more fish, win elections, and so on. Having sex with a woman with albinism, they believe, can cure someone of AIDs.
So imagine, they are hunted. Discriminated against, hunted, persecuted. In addition to that, try to think what it means to be white without melanin in your skin, and to be under the equatorial sun. So, most of them….their silent killer is skin cancer. They don’t reach their life expectancies. Being under this sun, as you can see [showed the reporter a photo], they die of skin cancer.
There’s been lots of talking, talking, talking, and documentaries, but nothing was done so far–We need to do something. So, I’ve tried to involve the Pope in that and have received his full support. Also, I would like to involve even more people.
ZENIT: How did you contact the Holy Father and what were your hopes when doing so?
Gentili: I wrote a letter to Pope Francis, Vatican City State. He received the letter, and I received a phone call. The Pope invited me to–well, I didn’t speak with him in person, but spoke with one of his assistants, actually, someone very close to him, who contacted me on his behalf– to an international symposium on Africa that was held at the Pontifical Academy of Science at the Vatican on the 29th of November, 2013. I was a speaker among many authorities, such as Roman Proti, officials of the Italian Ministry for Reintegration, cardinals, very prominent people. In Italy, we would say I was a “fly”…I didn’t count. I addressed the people with my speech, talking about the novel and this reality, the incredible reality of albinism. And since I was working abroad at the time of the conference, I was hosted at Casa Santa Marta, where the Pope is living, for three nights, four days.
ZENIT: Can you explain more about your experience at Santa Marta?
Gentili: Yes, it was amazing also because I had the chance to meet with the Pope in the canteen and I was near all the people that are around the Pope. It was a very nice environment. I was positively struck by that experience.
ZENIT: After the Pope asked you to speak at the conference, what followed?
Gentili: When I finished the conference, the Pope invited me for a private meeting with him. During that meeting, I explained a bit about the albinism problem. However, he knew very well what was going on in Africa and was very sensitive and considerate of African albinos, people considered the “last of the last,” living symbols of the absolute periphery.
Next, I explained to the Pope what I developed. With this company, we, with the help of young IT guys, we developed and created an application which is called a social audio-book, the first one ever.
ZENIT: Why was this initiative chosen?
Gentili: An audio-book is a book read by a person, so that others can listen. So, with this, [social audie-book], symbolically, you could give a voice to one who does not have a voice to speak for themselves.
You are invited to read a sentence of the novel. The novel “Ombra Bianca” is broken into some 2,000 sentences, and maybe hundreds of thousands of words. Many people can register on the website, can register for this application with their email addresses. Then, they can read the sentence or passage of the book and can lend their voice for those affected. It is very moving to see that by having people worldwide symbolically reading sentences to create the first social audiobook ever and get them interested, they, on some level, are lending their voices for those albinos without them. This initiative [was] launched [Wednesday], but the Pope wanted to be the first.
ZENIT: How did the Pope participate?
Gentili: The Pope read some sentences of my book. He read the sentences of a character–and this incredible–that I wrote about who served as a sort of metaphor for the role of the Catholic Church in Africa, which started out well, then sort of got lost. This character created hope.
The name of the character was: Priest Francis. In this book, there is this character Priest Francis. He was named like this before Pope Francis was elected Pope. In the book, he represents the hope for the Church in Africa. What are the odds that, completely unknown to all, Pope Francis would read sentences from this character, Priest Francis, named before Bergoglio would be elected Pope. It’s incredible the character “Priest Francis” was born and written before anyone knew there would be a Pope Francis.
ZENIT: Why is this initiative the first of its kind?
Gentili: Currently, it is a tangible book, but it will become available in audio form: the first social audio-book ever. With the launching of this initiative in which all people can lend their voice, to read a sentence of the book–in Italian. Even though you are a foreigner, you have to read it in Italian. This, will ultimately create the social audio-book. The first voice reading is the Pope, reading some sentences of Priest Francis, in the novel, the metaphor for hope.
ZENIT: For those interested in learning and supporting the cause, in what ways can they do so?
Gentili: Three initiatives are being launched: the social audio-book, a petition, and the hashtag.[Wednesday], I’ll be meeting with the Pope and the social audio-book will be launched.
The website, www.ombrabianca.com, provides information and is available in five languages: Italian, and is translated into English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Though the social audio-book must be read in Italian, there is a multi-language translation tool available, so all people can understand in their own languages.
It is also very important that there is a petition on the website, in six languages, including Chinese, at www.change.org. The petition can also reached by going from the website. On the left, there is the link to this petition where we ask to help these people. Basically, it’s very short: “Help African Albinos”
There is a link to the website for how people can donate, through Doctors with Africa-CUAMM and partnerships with other NGOs. There is a link on the website. If you click on it, you go immediately to their website and can donate money directly to provide concrete help for African albinos. In this way, I am not getting any money. I can keep my name clean. All the money goes straight to them. So, we are all trying to do our best.[Wednesday], the hashtag #HelpAfricanAlbinos will also be launched.
ZENIT: Could you elaborate further on what piqued your interest in regards to the albinos?
Gentili: I was curious because this phenomenon is so absurd. It’s very ironic and is an idea which is hard to believe. Being white and discriminated against in Africa seems crazy, as generally those with white skin are not the centers of ridicule and discrimination for skin color. Regardless, it’s proof, we are in a society full of prejudices.
I wanted to do something because it is not so huge. It is not like saying, “I want to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which is too huge for me to make a change, it would be impossible. However, with this, we can do something. We are talking tens of thousands of people, yes it is many people, but still. Also, prejudice can be eradicated, and we need to work on that. Given all of these factors, I felt I could do something, I had to do something, and did.
ZENIT: Any final hopes you would like to share regarding this cause and the initiatives?
Gentili: Please support this cause. It would be nice to demonstrate that in this “so-called” civilized world, there are people who care for these suffering people. They need to know that in the majority of the world populations, they are not seen as spirits, phantoms, animals, as they are thought to be in Africa.
Even spending some seconds to lend their voice and read some lines in this initiative, following the example of the Pope, or also, in addition, actually, to sign the petition would demonstrate our closeness to them, could achieve this. In doing so, all together, we can see what results can be achieved. Let’s hope to draw attention from world leaders, religious leaders, into this reality of albinism, to human beings who are forgotten or condemned.
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