SAVING LIVES AND DEFENDING THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH ALBINISM
“Am I afraid of being killed? I live with that fear every day.”
In 2015 he was selected as the inaugural award winner of the Bari-Bari Prize for Outstanding Albinism Advocacy. In 2018 he was selected together with 9 others from around the world, including Zimbabwean musician, Prudence Mabhena, as a recipient of the American Henry Viscardi Achievement Award for persons with disabilities who are exemplary leaders in their communities. A 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative fellow, Bonface Massah is a true modern hero. He took time off his hectic schedule to narrate his story to us.
I was born in Northern Malawi in Rumphi District, a semi-rural area. At that time my dad was working for an agricultural company so we used to travel a lot across the country. In our family, the first born has albinism, followed by twin-sisters, of which one has albinism. My sister who came after the twins does not have albinism, followed by myself and the last born does not have albinism. So my parents had 3 children with albinism and 3 without. When I was born, my mother was so stressed out when she saw me that she fainted and I had to be separated from her for a while until she recovered from the shock and received counselling. She simply couldn’t believe that she had given birth to a third child with albinism, but through counselling and support from the hospital staff she was able to accept me. Fortunately one of the nurses at the hospital also had a child with albinism so she gave my mum strength and encouragement.
While growing up, my parents already had experience of raising two children with albinism, so when I came along, a system was already in place of how to look after us. My parents were also already used to the rejection and discrimination from the community and from close relatives, especially on my dad’s side. My parents and older siblings were loving and very supportive of me while growing up. Our parents wanted the absolute best for us and they made sure that we got the best care and education. Growing up in a typical African setup whereby you have to provide for your family and for extended family as well, our relatives did not understand why my parents were only focusing on us and not sending their children to school as well.
My mother is a nurse by profession so she understood the dynamics of having children who needed to be cared for differently. She and my dad would go around to the schools which my brothers and I attended and raise awareness about our condition. I experienced bullying and name-calling at primary school and sometimes I would cry, but for the most part, I did not care much for it and I did not let it get to me because I did not know what albinism was. As far as I was concerned, I was just like any other child. It was only when I started secondary school and we started doing Biology that I started learning about this condition called albinism and how it came about. That is when it finally dawned on me that my condition is actually albinism.
As a young boy growing up with albinism, I did face challenges such as severe sunburn. Sunscreen was not readily available, unless there were donations at the hospital where my mother worked. My parents always have sunhats available for me, but wearing sunglasses all the time was a big inconvenience, I think mainly because my parents just made me wear them without explaining what they were for.
|Due to the lack of pigment in the eyes, individuals with albinism will have a number of vision difficulties such as reduced visual acuity, light sensitivity (Photophobia), rapid eye movements (Nystagmus) and misaligned eyes (strabismus).|
The high school I attended was very protective and they did not tolerate any bullying or name-calling. My brother was also there when I started form one so the whole school was already used to having someone with albinism. I then attended university at the Bunda College of Agriculture in Lilongwe where I did my first degree in Agronomy. My first year there was quite an interesting experience because you would hear second and third year students saying, “Aah, the university is now admitting white people!”
Whilst in high school I was able to take part in a lot of sports, but when I got to university, the academic pressure was too much and because of my vision, it meant that I had to spend most of my spare time studying in the library and catching up on notes in my room. I was not socially awkward at university as I did have girls that would talk to me here and there, but my fellow male students would see me and be in shock that even I had girls that talk to me. For some reason, those types of comments would make the girls withdraw from close relationships with me, though they remained acquaintances. That didn’t affect me much though because by then I had so many friends at the university and everyone was now used to me.
At the University of Stellenbosch where I went to do my Master’s Degree in Development Studies, focusing on Rehabilitation, Disability, Gender and Development, my peers there all assumed I was a white person. They refused to believe that I was a person with albinism from Malawi, so I also just rode on that wave and left them thinking that I was a white South African, which is what they strongly believed.
I am currently back in Malawi where I live with my wife and two kids, who all do not have albinism. However, when our kids were born, especially our youngest who is very light-skinned just like my mother, my wife’s friends and our parents’ friends would call but only to find out if the children had albinism like me. To me, this only shows me how they perceived us as people with albinism and it shows that the stigma is still there. My wife has been with me through thick and thin and she was able to handle the comments very well. She even took those times as opportunities to educate some people about the condition.
I have worked for many organisations which fight for the rights of persons with disabilities, such as the Association of Persons with Albinism in Lilongwe. Currently, I am working as the Country Director for Standing Voice, an international NGO based in Tanzania, Malawi and the UK, which also defends the rights of persons with albinism. We also promote access to healthcare and education, advocacy with the UN and governments, and comprehensive treatment of skin cancer and eye-care. As the Country Director, my job is to develop partnerships, strengthen collaborations with government, co-ordinate all the activities, active delivery of our skin cancer and vision programmes across Malawi and managing the referrals and coordination for the team of doctors which come from the UK, among other things. I was also recently appointed as one of the Commissioners of the Malawi Human Rights Commission where I’m working on the protection of rights of people with disabilities.
There are so many challenges which come with being a man with albinism in a country like Malawi. For example, relatives see you as less of a man who is not able to look after his family, more so looking after extended family. I have so many friends with albinism who have ended up going through divorce because of family which sees them as less manly.
Malawi has become known as a very dangerous country for people with albinism. This is another challenge which affects all people with albinism. I work with organisations which investigate the abductions and killings of people with albinism and provide care and protection for survivors. In most cases where the perpetrators were arrested, they would state that they wanted body parts of persons with albinism so that they could use them to make charms to get rich. Some fishermen actually use body parts of persons with albinism as bait to catch more fish. Initially when these abductions started in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, they would just chop off your hand or your leg using a machete and run away. Over the years however, the patterns have changed and the abductions have become even more gruesome and brutal as they now kill the victims and mutilate the bodies. Anybody part of a person with albinism is now considered useful in making these get-rich-quick charms. We also have cases of politicians who say they use the body parts to attract large crowds to their political rallies or gatherings. They also believe that the charms will make them win elections. The perpetrators of these atrocities are both in rural and urban places and it is hard to find out who the buyers of the body parts are.
My family and I have been fortunate enough to not experience these kind of attacks thus far, but there have been times where I see strange cars parked outside my house or people knocking at my door with threats and warnings. As a human rights defender I always expected these kinds of experiences. To stay safe I would have to often change cars and not stay in one location for too long. There was even a point where my wife said to me, “Bon, this is enough!” Eventually though, she said to me, “I realise that this is your calling and you must go on with your work.” She understood that this was something that I needed to do, even it meant using my own resources. Having grown up in a loving and caring environment, I felt the need to show the same love to victims of these attacks. Till today I always ask myself, “If I don’t do it, then who will?”
Doing this kind of work is not easy. In Malawi we have over 164 reported cases of these attacks and over 25 people were killed from 2013 till now. We also have ten persons with albinism who are still missing for 5 years or more, so we count them as having been killed. I think one of the most agonizing experiences which is the latest one was the disappearance of a twelve year old boy in one of the villages. He was taken in May this year from his village by his uncle after he convinced the parents that it was better for the boy to live with him at his home. Around August when the parents tried to get in touch with the child, the uncle suddenly had excuses all the time saying the boy was not around. The parents became suspicious and reported the matter to the police. On conducting investigations, it was found that the boy had been sold by the uncle and killed in Mozambique in May. The uncle was arrested together with other family members and other suspects, but the uncle was found to have been the mastermind of the whole plan.
In Malawi, we reviewed our penal code just for albinism in 2016. For murdering a person with albinism, one now gets life imprisonment. For trafficking a person with albinism, one gets life imprisonment as well. So in this particular case it was both trafficking and murder.
I would not say that our governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have done enough to curb the spread of these attacks. A lot more still needs to be done in terms of raising awareness and changing mindsets. Issues of witchcraft, myths and superstitions are deep-rooted in African individuals, including those who are in power. It is so complicated to get leaders to demystify their beliefs and possibly that is why they do not do much to address these issues. Some of them are religious but they still believe in these superstitious charms. It is even more complicated to demystify the beliefs that people with albinism do not have gold in their bones or magnets inside their bodies.
The only thing we can do to raise awareness is to continue with civic education. The main thing however which we must continue to strive for is the empowerment of persons with albinism because that makes us more visible. For example, people cannot just attack me right now because I am very well-known as an Activist and a Commissioner. They would have to be very strategic and plan the attack meticulously, because attacking a high-profile person would raise a lot of attention around the country and the world. You find that even in the rural areas, if a person with albinism owns a business, people will support and respect him or her. I am proud of how we as people with albinism in Malawi have invested ourselves to champion our own rights. That initiative of self-advocacy has raised the profile and awareness across the board. I also take it upon myself to visit families who have children with albinism and encourage them to accept their children and treat them the same way they do their children who do not have albinism. When they see me and hear of what I have achieved, they are encouraged that their children who have albinism can also grow up to become successful and productive people in life. My whole family including my mum and my siblings also help me in this advocacy of helping families who have rejected their children who have albinism.
Being an African with albinism, one always faces the dilemma of trying to figure out, “Am I black or am I white?” Another question that you may find yourself battling with is, “Am I African enough?” The only thing we ask from fellow Africans is for everyone to accept us as ‘Africans with albinism’. What we have is just a condition. Our parents are black so why is it hard to accept these products of black people? The pattern has shifted from strangers killing us to our own family members killing us. Africa really needs to accept and love us despite our condition which makes us look different but we are no less African.
“Am I afraid of being killed?” I live with that fear every day. I know that I can also be killed. Through my work I have seen bodies of murdered victims. I have been present during post-mortems and seen doctors examining body parts of persons with albinism. I have been at scenes where I am comforting the victims of attacks and the relatives of murder victims. I am at a point where I no longer cry when an attack has happened. The fear of being in these situations is gone now. I would not mind if I die doing this work, because I know that I have contributed well towards it. As I said before, “If we don’t do it, who will do it for us?” My motivation for continuing in this line of work is knowing that I can change things. I believe that I am a light for other people around me. Through love and support of people with albinism we can effect that mindset shift.
Working with survivors of albinism attacks, we provide psychosocial counselling, we send them back to school and pay their fees. In Malawi we rejected the safe-home approach because that is exclusionary. Our approach is to deal with the stigma in that same village and remove barriers for persons with albinism. I have seen tangible results of victims coming to realise that after the rejection and the attacks, there is life, there is peace and there is success.
In my work with people with various disabilities besides albinism, one thing that I work hard to eliminate is the spirit of dependence. A lot of disabled people are now used to receiving charity from people and they do not see the need to work. Even if they do work, they still expect donations and feel entitled to them. we need to work harder to empower people with disabilities to eliminate these behaviours and people with disabilities also need to accept themselves as they are and find their strengths and gifts which they can use to generate income.
My postgraduate studies at the University of Stellenbosch impacted directly on my work with persons with disabilities because I focused on public health, development and rehabilitation of people with disabilities into mainstream society. I do a lot of work developing policies and coming up with strategic programmes for people with disabilities so the studies wedged directly on the work that I had already been doing. I am still a farmer though, this year I am doing 25 hectares of maize and I have a piggery farm.
Going to Stellenbosch, receiving various awards and receiving international recognition has given me international exposure in my field of work. I thank God in everything I achieve and I actually share this recognition with the people that I have worked with, especially my parents whom I still work with in so many things. I have faced many challenges in my work and many times I have just felt like giving up. I keep on pushing because these awards have helped me to increase the visibility of people with albinism and awareness of the condition.
My advice to a young disadvantaged African child living with a disability who aspires to make it out of their situation and live a better life, is to have self-awareness of what God’s purpose in your life is. That is very critical. For example, I may have albinism, I may be blind, I may be deaf, but God put me here for a purpose. That helps you to accept yourself, your inner you. That also helps you to deal with the negative messages and attitudes from society. Self-acceptance and self-awareness has helped me to deal with everything that I have faced. I also give the same message to parents – they should accept their children with disabilities as they are. That will help them and their child to realise his or her full potential.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume
I am sure we all can agree that the beginning of the year 2020 was a rude awakening wrapped in a global event for the books due to the Covid19 pandemic. Zimbabwean sculptor slash Lawyer, David Chengetai Ngwerume, took to his creative outlet to not only process but provide a map for future generations in the form of his work, ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic Collection’ that has taken the world by storm.
According to Ngwerume, art “…is a duty and calling…”
The 40-year old’s sculpting journey started in the humble communal lands of Musana in 1995 under the instruction of revered fellow sculptor Cosmas Muchenje. He continued to excel in his academic studies as well which led him to an LLB (Bachelor of Laws, Honours) in 2006 from the University of Zimbabwe.
According to Ngwerume, “Art is a duty and calling that I persistently continue using various forms mainly in Stone Sculpture in invoking thought into Humanity, share awareness with the contemptuous world.” Ngwerume’s sculptures have been exhibited all over the world from Hong Kong (China), Canada to the United States of America, and locally in Zimbabwe at the Hebert Chitepo Memorial.
“My ambitions are global so I am in for it; it’s not always about where you are but where you are going.”
The sculptor’s ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic Collection’ comprises of pieces such as ‘MJ’ inspired by the pop icon Michael Jackson, encouraging people to mask up and get vaccinated. Another piece in the collection is called, ‘We are Torn’ which encourages people to sneeze into their elbows.
He is currently working on two other collections:
- ‘Thy Next World Collection’ which addresses concerns pertaining to humanity as we move into the future;
- And ‘Taking the Reins Collection’ which looks at the advancement of the world through the relationship between people and horses and their loyalty to humanity.
Ngwerume’s art is a reflection of the times and he is not stopping any time soon. He is also responsible for the iconic ‘Scales of Justice’ sculptures situated in front of the High Court in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare and the second capital, Bulawayo. We got to chat with the sculptor.
- The first question is probably something you get a lot, but I just have to ask; how did you manage to find yourself in the world of law and sculpting? To us laymen, the fields look so vastly different.
I am a hard worker and I believe staying in work in both professions has made me invincible. The modern-day world is driven by skill and knowledge and it is acquired by putting in more effort.
“As a creative I also can tell you inspiration is everywhere, everyday life is filled with endless sources of influence.”
- Have you ever found yourself in a position to choose between the two (law and sculpting) or a situation where one had to suffer for the benefit of the other?
Never! My ambition has always been to do more and I believe amongst the many I do I can manage both. If anything my professions feed off each other in a way.
- What is the intention of your art?
To influence change in this world and make it a better place through various mediums from Stone Sculpture, paintings, installations and various other mediums in portraying contemporary messages that invoke thoughts into humanity towards shaping their moment in times and make this world move towards positive thinking.
- In a past article, it is mentioned that you draw inspiration from your experience practising law; can you remember the first case that inspired an exhibit? Why did you find the case worthy of being your muse?
The first case I got inspired by was a Domestic Violence case. It motivated me to do a painting titled, WOMEN – STRUGGLE from the CRADLE. It was the extent of damage this particular domestic abuse case had inflicted on those involved that moved me to create.
- In another article it is mentioned that you mostly use serpentine stone, why is that?
I use various types of stones in my sculpting, like Spring stone, Opal, Lepidolite and Granite. It all depends on the message I intend to portray.
- Would you say you have any sculptors who either they personally or their work influences your work?
I am inspired by many sculptors like Michael Angelo, Gustav Vigeland and Dominic Benhura to name a few. As a creative I also can tell you inspiration is everywhere, everyday life is filled with endless sources of influence.
- Sculpting isn’t really popular in Zimbabwe, how can you say the sculpting scene is in Zimbabwe? Is there a support structure from fellow sculptors or it’s more of finding your own way?
Zimbabwe in a nutshell is about finding your way, but the upside of today’s world is that it’s a global village. In this global village, if you do your best, the world will always notice. My ambitions are global so I am in for it; it’s not always about where you are but where you are going.
- Could you please try explaining to us the creative journey you took in creating your popular COVID 19 Gallery?
The COVID-19 Pandemic is a global event affecting us all, and as an artist, I found it prudent to play my part in capturing the moments and share my views on Awareness and Vaccination.
- In making the exhibit MJ, how did you hone in on making the sculpture about the U.S pop star Michael Jackson?
MJ was the first public figure to move around wearing a mask, and his actions were early warnings of our reality, where the air we breathe is not safe as before because of COVID-19. His messages then were foretelling.
- According to New York-based art dealer Shingirai Mafara, your pieces are going to be part of the United Nations World Health Organisation permanent collection. Such an achievement, congratulations! How does knowing your work will live on long after you are gone feel? One could call it time travel of sorts, conversing with future generations.
I believe art is a reflection of perception and I am grateful for such higher strides being attained through my ingenuity. It is humbling to know that my work will inform, maybe even inspire future generations all over the world.
- How has it been coming into contact with big art dealers like Shingirai Mafara and do you think that has or will affect your style or subject matter moving forward?
Such dealers inspire my work and further my will to create and give me higher hopes that my art will be seen globally.
- Your most recent exhibit, “Halt Child Marriages” is definitely one for the times. As a man, where do you think the root problem lies in Zimbabwe’s child-bride pandemic?
The issue when it comes to child marriages is pure ugly GREED. The greediness in those men is uncalled for, it’s dirty, it’s illegal and it is immoral to view the young Girl Child as an object. We need to right such wrongs, and I am more than happy to lend my artistry to the cause.
(All pictures used are courtesy of David Ngwerume’s Facebook)
Interviewed by Hazel Lifa
My Work Is My Passion – Zim Rugby Guru Nelson Madida
A chat with Zimbabwean professional rugby player Nelson Madida.
For Nelson ‘Terminator’ Madida, a simple day at the office is light years from what many of us envision as a job. The professional rugby player, coach and trainer is one of the lucky few who get to do what they love on a daily, and he couldn’t be happier. Madida’s sporting career has come with a slew of awards like the 2015 Best Forward Player in Matabeleland, and the 2017 7’s Player of the Year. These awards ultimately led him to play for Zimbabwe’s national rugby team.
Once he had dominated the player aspect, Madida shifted to training others and making bold moves in the world of rugby. Dubbed a ‘rugby guru’, Madida’s experience playing internationally highlighted how opportunities in spaces like the rugby world were closed off to women. This realisation steered Madida’s involvement with the Nyambose Girls Academy through the programme, HOPE. The programme was aimed at using the sport of rugby as a tool to empower the girl child and encourage gender equality in the game of rugby. The Nyambose team went on to win the 2017 Bulawayo Women’s Club League.
The Covid19 pandemic was a huge disrupter for many and the father of one is no exception. Never one to be short of ideas, Madida started an online fitness and health programme in 2020 to keep people’s bodies and minds in shape. The programme has Zimbabwean and South African participants who have benefited from the self-crafted training regimes and free medical advice on muscle issues and injuries Madida provides.
Madida stated, “The world finds itself in a difficult position due to this pandemic. The sporting world has suffered severely from the consequences of the virus… I have come up with a fitness and health programme meant to keep people focused on something other than the coronavirus.”
Madida is also the Sports Director at Christian Brothers College (CBC) in the city of Bulawayo. We caught up with the sportsman/mentor/ trainer/coach/community leader for a chat.
Zimbabwe participated in the Tokyo Olympics Sevens rugby qualifying trials in Monaco, how was the trip?
It was fun and inspiring. It’s always a great time when I get to meet and play with players from other countries/teams.
Any highlights from the experience?
I got to see the growth of rugby in Zim through the new crop of players on the Zim team and other new players from other teams.
Being a trainer as well, could you say rugby influenced your fitness level or has the game just been an added advantage?
I have always been a fitness fanatic, but rugby as a sport naturally pushes you beyond the boundaries to become a better and supreme competitor.
From the field to the community; what inspires your involvement as a community leader in the Bulawayo community of Pumula?
To help and motivate the younger generation to be the best they can be, and that starts NOW! People often think this happens overnight, but no, we should start in the immediate communities we live in.
Could you give us a basic breakdown of the community activities you are involved in?
1. I run a rugby academy that helps kids with Depression (suicidal risk).
2. Mentorship through rugby.
3. Keeping old people / senior citizens healthy and happy through fitness.
You started an online fitness and health training program right about the time the pandemic started, how has that been?
It has been progressive and a challenge at the same time, adapting to the new normal has its growing pains but I am optimistic.
When you started training a girls team at Nyambose Girls Academy did you experience any push back from stakeholders seeing as rugby has long been seen as a boys-only sport?
No, we had a lot of support for the girls’ rugby team. It was heart-warming to see how people could see what we were trying to achieve.
Any new projects or programs in the near future?
YES, definitely; but I won’t spill the beans just as yet.
Having played rugby this long any regrets or advice you can give to rookie players you wish you had known sooner?
Regrets none, advice? If you love something never give up but always know that failing is a part of a learning curve.
Any sportsperson who has influenced your career and why?
Myself, (laughs) I think it’s important to always give yourself more credit for how far you have come and what you have achieved. I saw what I wanted and went for it, I didn’t have all the answers but I kept pushing even when others didn’t have faith in my vision.
If you weren’t doing what you do today what would you be doing?
(A pause followed by a nervous laugh) Honestly, l don’t know… this is all l have ever known. My work is my passion.
Any noteworthy differences between being a player and a coach?
Not differences really but similarities rather, you are always learning on both ends which ensures I am never bored.
Interviewed By Hazel Lifa
AKEWA – A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra
A chat with Gabonese/French fashion powerhouse Francois Aveyra who apprenticed for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others.
Having been an apprentice for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Cor Raniero Gattinoni, you would think that founder of prêt-à-porter brand AKEWA, Francois Aveyra, is one very tough and proud individual. Reserved but always smiling, Francois is quite the opposite. A happy soul who enjoys life, loves nature, and is not pretentious, his friends and family describe him as a confident and trustworthy person who brings sunshine and good vibes into their lives. A bit of a loner sometimes, Francois loves people who are as reserved as he is, and maybe the quiet time is what gives this creative genius all the inspiration and motivation he needs to churn out exotic and colourful designs which celebrate contemporary African creativity.
Says Francois, “I love making clothes, bags and accessories which represent my story. My products represent who I am… a mixture of different cultures.”
When he was a young stylist in the 80s, Francois made a name for himself working at Parisian events which were attended by the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Serge, Gainsbourg, Andy Warhol, and Claude Montana, among many other stars.
Based in Marrakech, Morocco, the yoga-loving design guru took some time to tell us his life story and about his exceptional achievements in the fashion industry.
You were born to a Gabonese father and a French mother. Can you briefly tell us about your childhood, and life lived between the two countries?
I grew up in France, and I would travel to Gabon, Central Africa, over the summer holidays. Flying between those two worlds brought me a lot of exposure, compared to my friends. By that time, most of my friends had never been on an aeroplane. I loved travelling and I felt so privileged. My father was a very traditional man, and through visiting his side of the family, I was introduced to Gabonese music, dance and spiritual traditions, all of which intrigued me greatly. From my childhood, I attended and assisted my father in many spiritual ceremonies; I loved it, and I felt so powerful with him.
How and when did you decide that fashion was what you wanted to do as a career?
I was close to the beach with a friend one day, and we were talking about fashion. She was supposed to start work as an assistant to Guy Laroche, a great haute couture designer in France. Suddenly, I had a revelation, and I decided right there that I wanted to attend Fashion School in France. My father refused at the beginning, but after a few months of fighting, he accepted the idea. I had always felt so attracted to dance, music or acting, and I would have probably chosen a career in the arts, but life and destiny brought me to fashion.
Before that, I had actually started law school, and after doing just one part of my studies in Bordeaux, France, I stopped because I realised that becoming a lawyer wasn’t meant for me, and I went to Design School in Paris.
My mother is a hairstylist and I spent most of my early years behind the hair salon doing hair on some dolls (laughs). My grandfather was a painter, and so from seeing him work, I started to draw at a very early age. I spent most of my time with my grandma who was very elegant and smart. She was a great influence to me. She played violin so well, and we would watch black and white movies together. I believe I got most of my artistic and creative influence from my entire immediate family.
As your career progressed, you decided to leave Paris. Which country did you go to first, and what did you do when you got there? Which other countries did you eventually work in as well, and what did you do there?
When I completed Fashion School, I started working for small brands like Naf Naf, but my dream was to work in Italy, because I was so impressed by Armani and Versace designs. I was able to realise my dream, and in Italy I worked for Cor Raniero Gattinoni in Rome, who had clients like Ingrid Bergman, Anita Ekberg, etc. Her mother, Fernanda Gattinoni, was very famous in the 60s during the ciné cita period. A lot of American productions were produced in Italy at the time.
After a while I moved back to Paris, and then London, because I wanted to discover the world and to feed my spirit of creativity. I eventually settled in Morocco in 2016, where I’m based now. By the way, soon after I was done with Fashion School, I founded my first brand in Gabon, LEAMONO, in association with Albertine, who was the daughter of the president at that time, and her cousin Ursula.
As the years went by, you managed to grow in your career and you became the owner of an artistic agency. Can you tell us more about the agency and the work you did, and what motivated you to start that business?
Having worked in different sections of the fashion industry, I learnt so much over time. Among other things, I worked as a Booker in various modelling agencies, I was once a stylist for advertising and magazine agencies, I worked as a Casting Director, and I also worked as a Press RP in English. Armed with all this experience, my global vision of fashion, and sheer curiosity, I then decided to create my own agency representing talent which included fashion photographers, stylists, hairstylists, makeup artists, illustrators and directors.
I am naturally someone who loves to take care of others, and if someone is feeling bad, I will do my best and exert all my energy to make that person feel better, and achieving that goal gives me a lot of satisfaction. Hence I created the agency because to me it was only logical, seeing as my job was concentrated on looking after others. I enjoyed being the ‘orchestra chief’ or ‘conductor’ of the whole operation.
I totally loved my job, being everywhere, doing production, and applying the vast knowledge I had gained over the years. Choosing talent, mixing them up, and developing them with an artistic vision of their career was the highlight of my vocation.
Your business grew from strength to strength, and as you mentioned earlier, you were privileged to work as a Model Booker and Stylist for some of the most prestigious agencies and influential people in the world’s largest fashion capitals such as Rome, Paris, New York, and London. How did it feel to have made a name for yourself and be recognised, reflecting on how far you had come from when you were a young man in Libreville, Gabon with big dreams?
To me, whether one comes from Africa, China, the countryside, or a small city, if you have big dreams, the feeling will be the same. When you do things with heart and passion, everything comes naturally, step by step, because obviously one does not wake up with a crown on their head overnight.
My dream was not really to be recognised, but to do what I wanted to do passionately and to meet with people and share my knowledge, as well as learn new things. Above all, I wanted to do what makes me happy, and that was the most important thing to me.
Can you tell us about the birth of the brand AKEWA? How and when was it born, and why did you choose that name? What does it mean and what is its significance?
AKEWA was born in Marrakech. Initially, I was just supposed to help a Moroccan designer and disappear (big laugh), but I started working for a friend in decor for 6 months before I then decided to create shoes and bags which I sold to friends. Soon after, I was now selling the products online, and when I realised it was going well, I decided after a year to open a physical store and that was when the brand explosion happened (smiles).
AKEWA is an expression of gratitude. It means ‘thank you’ in my Gabonese language which is called Mpongwe. The context is “thank you to life, and thank you to freedom”. I feel very attached to the notion of freedom, because for me, it signals a rebirth.
Did working with big brands and big names such as Mick Jagger, Carla Bruni, Madonna and Grace Jones have an influence on your decision to start your own fashion brand?
As I mentioned earlier, my biggest goal from a young age was to discover the world; I was so attracted to the fashion and creative industries, and I wanted to be part of that. I arrived in London at the young age of 17, and I was at Kings Road with the unconventional hub of young and fashionable creatives during the punk era. The stars did feed my curiosity, and yes they definitely influenced me – they were a light to my path.
Everybody was very simple at the time, we all shared the same feelings and moods. Life was also very simple back then – there were no iPhones or other similar gadgets to capture and expose you in a bad situation. Everyone was very cool and we all minded our own business.
I had my own type of ‘swag’, confidence and personality, and even though I wasn’t famous, that worked for me because the doorman would always let me in at events (laughs).
Where do you see the brand AKEWA in the next 5 years?
Well, Covid-19 has been quite a hindrance, but I hope that it will soon pass and everything will be going well again in a couple of months, because what I want is to see AKEWA all over the world.
I’m working on a perfume right now, and I’m also preparing the “Who’s Next – Paris” ready-to-wear international exhibition for January 2022. I trust God that all will go well.
You are also into philanthropic work. Can you tell us about your involvement with Refugees Got Talent? What is your role there and what inspired your decision to become part of it?
When I first arrived in Marrakech, I shared my flat with a friend who runs a refugees association called Global Migrants Africa. I immediately felt a lot of concern for the people he was working to assist, and I lobbied my network of friends and colleagues to support the initiative.
The organisation supports a lot of artists and sculptors by lobbying an African market for the products, and I decided to invite potential customers to purchase the products. I also collaborated with another association to find ways in which they can provide dance classes for young children. We even got the likes of Léonore Baulac, a French ballet dancer who is an étoile (star) at the Opéra National de Paris Ambassador of Associations, to come and assist.
Also, most of the members of my teams at my atelier (design workshop) and shop are actually migrants from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Cameroun.
What words of advice would you give to a young African who has dreams of making it big in the fashion industry just as you did?
That is very simple; NEVER GIVE UP, AND FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!!
To see more of Francois’ alluring designs, follow @akewa_african_lifestyle on Instagram, and @AKEWA.STYLE on Facebook.
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