Like everyone else, he was christened with a name of his parent’s choosing, a name that will later come to hold great significance for him. Unlike everyone else, however, at least in the immediate environment he grew up in, he was born with mild albinism so everyone around him took to calling him ‘Yellow’ from the moment they set eyes on his pale little baby’s body. I knew Yellow for 23 years before I learnt his name – Saalis.
Just down the street from where I grew up lived a woman who limps heavily in her left leg, the entire neighborhood called her ‘Dela’ – a play on a local name for a brand of pomade that features a woman seemingly prostrate and hence appearing disabled from the waist down ‘Dela mai gurguwa.’ She will berate anyone who calls her ‘Dela’ to her hearing and that earned her a reputation for being troublesome. Now in retrospect I see that she was angry that people wouldn’t call her by her given name, ‘Amina’, they will rather call her by a descriptor that speaks only of her disability.
The first time I called ‘Yellow’ by his given name ‘Saalis’ his eyes lit up and he had the biggest most sincere smile I’d seen on his face in all the years I’ve known him. I wouldn’t call him Yellow ever again afterwards.
Names carry significance as an integral part of the personhood of everyone. When we call people living with a disability – whether that is albinism, a limp or dwarfism, by a nickname inspired by their disability what we are doing is erasing a chunk of who they are. It is violence that has the potential to eat away at a person’s sense of self. The truth of this only fully came home to me when I began to date a person living with albinism.
Dan and I had the gift of distance and the blessing of the internet. Our long-distance affair meant I knew little of his everyday lived experience so our interactions started off on a clean slate not marred by a shared knowledge of our daily struggle. When 2 years down the line – after having met him and known him in intimate ways only passionate lovers can truly understand, he mentioned casually how indistinct albinos generally are my experience with Saalis came crashing down on me. I knew Saalis for decades but only really saw him, or to put it better made him feel really seen by me, when I learnt and began to call him by his name.
I quickly cut Dan off to tell him he does a disservice to the love I have for him if he thinks I couldn’t tell him apart from another person living with albinism. I reminded him about the unique way his nose is upturned at the corner and flare up when he is excited. How his translucent eyes that could never stay still have a way of focusing intently when he looks into my eyes, their unconscious tick a testament to how determined he is to really look into my eyes no matter what it takes. And how his smile is the most distinct thing I’ve ever seen on a person and I can tell him apart in a sea of albinos.
But it doesn’t have to take a great love to see people. All it takes is a recognition of their unique humanity, whether they are able in the general sense of the word or differently abled.
We owe human dignity to everyone, and sometimes a small gesture like seeing people beyond one small aspect of their being and calling them by their name could feel like the greatest gift in the world for people who a crooked society seems determined to erase with an out of sight out of mind attitude.