The Horizons Beyond
Living with albinism in a dark world
From nearly every vantage in Lisbon, you can see water. If you can’t see the ocean, you can smell its brine or hear it in the cries of seagulls overhead. It is a city steep with hills, and these can be exhausting if you have your two small children in tow, as I did when visiting Portugal this spring. However, each climb offers the promise of a view, and the higher you ascend, presumably, the farther you can see. Except that’s not how horizons work. We saw only varying shades of blue, where the dark ocean met the light sky at some blurred and distant point. What lay beyond that shimmer?
The desire to find out fuelled centuries of exploration as Portuguese sailors opened trade routes and colonized existing nations, leaving few parts of the world untouched. On one side is a romantic history of leaving — as witnessed in the monuments, squares, and streets named for explorers. On the other side are scarred nations, continuing to struggle with their colonial pasts. This is where we find the characters featured in Anthony De Sa’s poetic and moving second novel, Children of the Moon. They live in the present but exist in an aftermath that is both global and personal.
The novel’s three connecting stories take place in Tanzania and Mozambique (and occasionally in Canada) and span sixty years, from the mid‑1950s to the present day. First, we meet Pó, a Maasai woman with albinism, which is a recessive genetic condition that results in little to no pigment in the hair, skin, and eyes and is associated with low vision. Pó lives among thousands of squatters in the dilapidated Grande Hotel in Beira, Mozambique, which had once been an opulent paradise but was abandoned after the last of the Portuguese soldiers left in the mid‑1970s. In her block of the hotel, others with albinism, particularly children, have gathered for safety, and Pó oversees their education and well-being.
That Pó has albinism and lives in East Africa means she has spent a lifetime under threat — from violence, from exclusion, and from the sun that burns her fair skin, now covered in cancerous lesions. From the beginning, she has been ostracized from her tribe; in her later years, she lives in fear of poachers. These are men who attack, maim, and dismember people with albinism, selling their body parts on a gruesome black market to quack healers, who use the remains in potions that purportedly bring good luck in life, love, and business.
As Pó tells her story to Serafim, a visiting reporter from Brazil, she is adamant that he record everything about her life, and in her words: “You say you come here to write of me, but all scribblers hope they will find the magic that everyone speaks of, that we albinos carry in us. You must listen to my words. You must promise to tell my story the way I have shared it with you.” Pó’s determination is written into the structure of the book, as we hear her voice in the recordings that Serafim occasionally listens to alone in his hotel room.
Pó chooses Serafim as her medium because she believes he is a man who cares about the world. She notices him putting his cigarette butt in his pocket rather than leaving it in her hallway. She may live precariously, a squatter in a multi-unit hotel that has no other means of garbage disposal but the elevator shaft (where, horrifyingly, children occasionally fall and are lost), but this is her home. He respects that.
Serafim may seem to care about the world, but he has recently reported on an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon, irrevocably changing the lives of its members. He seeks atonement by allowing Pó to tell her story, with his byline — and ego — taking a back seat. (I have to say I’m not convinced that a person who knowingly exposes a vulnerable group to disease and world scrutiny could muster that level of remorse.)
Other journalists came to the Grande Hotel before Serafim, convincing Pó that her story would spur change. In return for access, they brought school supplies and toys for the children. For me, this was familiar territory. In 2013, I travelled to Tanzania to meet with and record the stories of people with albinism living under threat. I also brought school supplies and toys — as well as a bag of sun hats. And I believed, or at least hoped, that reporting on the heinous crimes against these people could stir global interest. Unlike those others, however, my mission was personal: my daughter has albinism. In the early weeks of her life, as I struggled to understand what this meant, I turned to the internet. There, along with some basic medical information, I discovered devastating stories about the brutalities faced by East Africans living with albinism. I couldn’t turn away. Three years later, I flew to Tanzania.
During my visit, I mostly met children. Several of them had been attacked and were missing body parts. Many of them lived together at well-guarded schools in the west and east of the country, not unlike the children under Pó’s care in De Sa’s novel. Some of them had been left at the gates, their parents fearing for their children’s lives or, worse, wanting to rid themselves of children they’d viewed as burdens.
Albinism is globally misunderstood, and in North America this generally materializes in literature and films portraying people with this genetic condition as evil, as having supernatural powers, or simply as strange. For this reason, I held my breath while diving into the first pages of Children of the Moon, but it was soon clear that I hadn’t needed to worry.
Pó is a fully formed character. Her disability is not glossed over, nor is it the only facet of her being. Thankfully, she is not cast as a disabled woman whose role is that of a metaphor, or as a means of reflecting growth in some other non-disabled character, or even, God forbid, as a way of teaching the others some treacly lesson about acceptance. No: Pó is complex, strong, long-suffering, and broken, but she’s also a survivor and a healer, in the truest sense of the word. She tells her story, in her own words. She has agency.
The third voice in these interwoven narratives is Ezequiel. Born to a Makonde mother and Portuguese father, but adopted by white missionaries, Ezequiel is wrenched into conflicting worlds. His adoptive mother longs to return home to Holland, his adoptive father’s Portuguese ancestors have been in the country for centuries, and he considers himself Mozambican. Ezequiel’s allegiances are further brutalized when he is abducted, first by guerrilla fighters of a fringe nationalist group that declares allegiance with the anti-colonialist liberation front, and then by the Portuguese secret police.
It is in Ezequiel’s life struggle that we see the worst, longest-lasting, and deepest scars of colonialism. He belongs nowhere, to no one. He has no homeland. In Canada, where we first find him, living alone, suffering from dementia, he still cannot escape the memories of violence. His doctors want to know if he has any questions, and he asks, “Why are my veins turning into electric wires? How come my dreams are flooded with colour? Why do imposters chase me every night?” The physicians have no response. There are no answers.
History is tightly woven in Children of the Moon, and it illuminates Mozambique’s road to independence. Learning is the wonderful bycatch of fiction, but possibly a more important side benefit is that reading novels builds empathy. Pó instinctively understands the transformative experience of an immersive narrative, and how it can motivate people in ways that news reports cannot. Readers come to care about characters like Pó, and by extension others who have faced similar oppression. Once they are invested in a tale like hers, they see beyond a headline. To put it another way, a story well told allows us to see, or at least imagine, what lies beyond the horizon.