Erica Heflin and Amanda Rachels’ new comic, Flesh of White, takes a serious issue and presents it to American readers in a personalized, accessible format. People with albinism have been systematically shunned, killed, and marginalized in Tanzania for centuries due to cultural beliefs surrounding their pale skin (They are considered ghosts.), but I had never heard of the phenomenon. Initially, I worried about two white Americans’ interpretation of Tanzanian cultural mores and indigenous belief systems, but the respect and care used to tell their story of a family caught between ancient beliefs and the desire to protect their child won me over.
Idi and Rehema adore their infant son, Kwasi, but because he was born with albinism, they know that they must keep him hidden to avoid attracting the attention of those who believe his flesh contains mystic powers. When Kwasi is spotted by the harvester for a local witch doctor while Rehema is shopping, the infant becomes a target. The family seems safe in their village, but the witch doctor’s ability to use snakes to track his victims brings tragedy to their doorstep. With the help of the local village leader, Rehema flees with Kwasi to a hidden village populated only by individuals with albinism and their immediate families. The mother and son’s arrival draws the witch doctor’s attention to the village, but the population has decided to fight to protect their home and to change common perceptions about their differences.
If you come into Flesh of White #1 and #2 expecting huge, earth-shattering events, you’ll be a little disappointed. While Heflin’s story tackles a difficult, wide-spread issue, she focuses on the personal fights, losses, and victories of one family rather than painting things with broad strokes. Given the sensitivity of the topic, I greatly appreciate her choice; it is easier to identify with Rehema and Idi’s personal struggle to protect their son with albinism, and it helps avoid generalizations about all people in Tanzania or all witch doctors/people who hold to indigenous beliefs. If you have ever cared for a child or someone/something weaker than yourself, it is simple to understand Rehema’s desire to save her son, and her fortitude proves that women don’t have to be tough fighters to be strong. The second issue introduces more female characters who have persevered despite tragedy, and while the antagonists are male, there are several sympathetic men, as well. My only small complaint is that I don’t see how the story will finish in four issues given the relatively slow pace; however, Issues #3 and #4 may dial up the intensity and bring things to a powerful climax.
Rachels’ artwork takes Heflin’s words and brings them to vivid life. The rich saturation of color in the backgrounds and general environment makes Kwasi and the population of the albino village stand out in stark contrast. She also appears to have researched how villages and towns actually look in Tanzania, since the various locations seem realistic for the regions rather than something generic that could be placed into any community.
I greatly enjoyed the first two issues of Flesh of White, but if you prefer comics with extremely dynamic stories, this probably isn’t your ideal read. It takes a nationwide issue and filters it through the lens of one family, which gives it a small, personal focus; however, if Heflin and Rachels’ work helps educate even one person about the issue while providing a little entertainment, I think their job is done.
4.5 Amazing Instances of Parental Love out of 5
For more information about the persecution of people with albinism in Tanzania, check out the NPR article, “Tanzania’s Albinos Face Constant Threat of Attack.” In addition, the Kickstarter campaign for Flesh of White #3 may be found here.