Apart from the constant struggle to be accepted, the challenge of people living with vitiligo transcends acceptance to achievement of dreams.
Ifeoma Obidike was about 10-years-old when she found out she had vitiligo. At first, she didn’t know what it was but she quickly learned. Other children made fun of the white patches on her skin and called her an ogbanje. One day, their neighbour came to their house shouting that her mother should keep her away from her children so that she won’t infect them with her disease.
Obidike who is now 23 said: “when I was growing up, I didn’t care what I looked like. Then, I switched schools because of what my schoolmates and classmates say to me and how badly they treated me.” Obidike recalled that one of the heartbreaking moments as a child who had vitiligo was when her class teacher ridiculed her before the whole class because she didn’t get the answer to a question correctly. Her teacher looked at her with disgust and called her demeaning names because of the white patches on her skin. Obidike noted that it was tough growing up among ignorant people who didn’t know anything about vitiligo.
Dealing with so much external pressure because of her skin condition, Obidike suffered from low self-esteem because of how people treated her like she had a contagious disease. She also hated herself for being different. She would cry in private and ask God questions why he created her the way she was. She had a tumultuous childhood because of vitiligo.
She said: “When I’m not at school, I have many moments when I start to cry and tell myself horrible things like, ‘I’m ugly,’ ‘what did I do to deserve this,’ and ‘I’m a horrible person’. I know my family loves me for me, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.” Now that she is an adult, Obidike started to care more about her self-appearance and self-esteem. Even though she doesn’t feel pretty with her white spots, she wishes she could go back to her younger self who didn’t care so much about her appearance but wanted to be happy like other children.
The shocking experience of an advert executive
Apart from the constant struggle to be accepted by people the way they are, the challenge of people living with vitiligo transcends acceptance to achievement of dreams. Following their dreams seems like a herculean task because of the way people view their skin condition and the kind of responses they get while trying to pursue their passion. It’s a tough world for them according to their stories.
“I knew it was going to be a problem when I just finished lunch with a friend and she said, “You have something on the side of your mouth.” Forty-two-year-old Olatunde Omoniyi was an advert executive with one of the investment companies in Lagos when his colleague pointed out that he had something on the side of his mouth. But he was sure there wasn’t any food on his mouth, it was his skin. Omoniyi told Saturday Sun that he had been able to cover the small spots on his hands and scalp and the one small spot under his nose. But after eating, the corners of his mouth could not be hidden.
He stated: “I thought the life I had created was over. I didn’t know how to react. And with time, it got much worse. I was a mix of black and white. And I went through the scary stages of grief, fear, anger and acceptance.” While looking down on his affected hands and shaking his head slowly, Omoniyi confessed that living with vitiligo has been years of questioning, emotional struggle, and crazy looks but the truth is a little shocking. This disease has become his blessing.
Living with vitiligo can be challenging but Omoniyi has found support and guidance that makes him proud of his imperfect skin. He has created a life of his own definition. And now, he can’t imagine his life journey any other way. This is because living with this skin condition has made him a more loving and compassionate person. “I have become a more loving and compassionate man. I am embracing the stares and directing the attention, when appropriate, to positive ends. How do I live with vitiligo? I just live!”
Vitiligo – some women’s success story
Tolulope Adeniji said that there are so many vitiligo success stories and she is one of them. She is proud to say that vitiligo no longer holds sway over her life and choices. And she believes this is possible for everyone that has vitiligo no matter how much people stare and murmur about their skin condition.
According to Adeniji, “I have had vitiligo for over ten years now. It has slowly grown to other areas of my body. My face, my hands, my legs, my feet and my chest are filled with white patches.” Going back in time, Adeniji recalled that there was a time when she would not ever wear sandals. She would only wear shoes that covered her feet. There was a time when she never wore shorts. For years, she didn’t attend a pool party or appeared in public without covering her whole body. For her, going outside was difficult. Facing the world with two skin colours was something she was afraid to do. But something changed.
Adeniji said: “One day, I got tired of hiding my patches. I got tired of all the stares and questions and decided to stop being afraid of the world, afraid of judgment, afraid of rejection. It was a waste of my time and other people’s time too.”
Adeniji started to face her fears socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually. She is happy to say that vitiligo is something she rarely thinks about. “I am not afraid of more de-pigmentation. It’s happening. I am losing pigment here and there. But I am not scared of it to the point where it disables me. In fact, it enables me!”
She says it enables her to see the futility of cosmetics, the fiction of socially constructed notions of beauty and attractiveness. Nigerian model, Temilola Omobajesu, is one of those people who decided to be free from hiding the white patches on her body. It all started when she was in secondary school. She noticed one small itchy patch on her leg, but later it gradually kept spreading to other parts of her body. Then, she didn’t really know what it was. She thought it was just a phase that was going to pass but instead, it kept spreading.
Speaking to Saturday Sun, Omobajesu said: “I remember then I had to wear long socks and a big skirt to school to cover my legs, but unfortunately I couldn’t cover the one on my face, so I and my parents started visiting several hospitals for a cure.” Some people said there is no treatment for it in Nigeria except in India. The stigma continued till she finally met with a doctor for medication. For about a year, that helped to get the patches on her face cleared off. He also gave her a particular soap and cream he made himself. She would rub them on her skin and sit in the sun for hours. But unfortunately the doctor passed away. And she felt her world had finally crumbled.
Omobajesu confessed that her university days were tough, because she had to deal with people calling her all sort of names; “Mary Amaka” is one I won’t forget in a hurry which was given to me because of the way I dressed. Some even called my legs “Map of the world”. It took me 14 years to really accept Vitiligo. Most of my friends really encouraged me though.”
Even though Vitiligo cost her some friendship and self-esteem to an extent, the most painful thing about it in her life was having it affect her modeling dreams. Most directors and agents would tell her they couldn’t work with her. Some would even say it to her face that they need girls with beautiful skin not her patches. But everything changed when her sister woke her up one day and showed her an article about an American model with vitiligo called Winnie Hallow. She was shocked and said to herself that if Hallow could do this then she can do it better.
“Reluctantly, I posted a picture of my legs on Instagram, and I was surprised at people’s comments. Even though I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about being confident in my skin, I didn’t heed their advice, until that fateful day.”
Omobajesu’s chance to prove herself came when her designer friend who had always wanted her to come out of her shell and show the world, who she truly was told her she wanted to showcase a collection of her designs and she was dedicating it to vitiligo.
“I immediately said I was done with it and started to do photo shoots portraying the parts where I had Vitiligo and that was how I became free from what other think or say about my imperfect skin,” revealed Omobajesu.