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He's a singer, a cop and the inspiration for a Netflix film about albinism in Africa

John Chiti is a Zambian musician and police commissioner. He also has albinism, a pigmentation condition that has shaped his life. His story inspired the film "Can You See Us?" — now streaming on Netflix.
Jason Milikita/Sightsavers
John Chiti is a Zambian musician and police commissioner. He also has albinism, a pigmentation condition that has shaped his life. His story inspired the film "Can You See Us?" — now streaming on Netflix.

Updated September 10, 2023 at 9:00 AM ET

The day John Chiti was born was a difficult one for his family in Zambia. "They were shocked and they were confused because I was born different," he says.

Chiti was born with albinism, a congenital condition of having no pigment in the skin or hair, which appear white.

His family "didn't understand how come Black people can have a white child," Chiti says. "Maybe my mother had an affair with a white man. Or it is a curse. So there was a lot of ignorance about the condition."

That ignorance shattered Chiti's family. His father blamed his mom and wanted nothing to do with his child. This was the first of many hurdles Chiti had to overcome before becoming the man he is today – successful, assured and well-known.

Chiti's life is the inspiration behind a film that's new to Netflix called Can You See Us? It chronicles the life of a boy called Joseph who grows up with albinism in Zambia.

In the movie, when Joseph is born, the father shouts, "Leave me alone! Whatever that thing is, it's not my child!"

The boy's parents divorce, just as Chiti's did. Chiti was raised by his mom and, before long, his stepfather. "I thought he was my real father because this is the person I remember from all the early childhood memories," he says. "I had a very strong bond with him."

Chiti found love and acceptance from his nuclear family and an occasional friend but often felt isolated. His peers made fun of him. Chiti hoped that when he got older, he could buy a special lotion so that "I'll be Black like my friends and I'll play with my friends and I'll be accepted."

Then, when he was 15, he was attacked. His assailants wanted his leg.

"Body parts of people with albinism are believed to have powers, to make wealth, to cure diseases," says Chiti. "And because of that, many people with albinism are hunted and killed. It's a crime, it's murder, it's assault."

A similar attack on Joseph unfolds in the film: Blood is drawn, but then a group descends on the scene and the attackers flee before they can inflict irreversible harm. This kind of assault on those with albinism is sadly common in Zambia and surrounding countries, says executive producer and screenwriter Lawrence Thompson.

"I think the film has made quite an impact cause everybody says they didn't know that was what was happening," he says.

Hakainde Hichilema, the president of Zambia, attended the premiere. He later wrote on Twitter: "The movie Can You See Us? is a gripping tale of a little boy's difficult childhood. The setting, music and cinematography were on point though some scenes were emotional to watch."

And Thompson is hopeful that reforms are in the works. "[The president] is looking at strengthening the laws in place around the attacks on people with albinism," says Thompson.

In his experience, Chiti says that such violence tends to be motivated by people's hostility toward difference.

"It's like we are in the wrong place," Chiti says. "And it's like the community is telling us, 'You don't belong here.' For you to be African, you have to be Black."

Visibility is the most important way to dismantle these prejudices, according to Chiti. It's something he has managed to achieve by becoming a well-known singer and musician in Zambia. He uses his status to elevate issues of disability rights and albinism.

For instance, Chiti founded the Albinism Foundation of Zambia, an organization that works to fight discrimination and secure equal rights for those with albinism. And he's currently serving as an advocate with the Sightsavers campaign to ratify the African Disability Protocol, a binding agreement to develop laws and policies to promote disability rights across Africa.

"I become a celebrity," he says. "People are seeing me on TV, listening to my music. So when they see [a person who's albino] in the streets, it's no longer a strange thing because we have people with albinism in the limelight."

Today, Chiti has reconciled with his biological father. He's also become a full-time police commissioner, in part to help crack down on attacks that people with albinism face.

And he has three kids of his own. "Albinism is never something we even talk about at home because it's not an issue," he explains. "I would like to reach a place where we see someone as someone, as a person. And not the color, not the complexion, not the condition, not the disability."

Chiti has come so far — he says he just wishes his mom could see him now. She died suddenly when he was 11.

"One thing that regrets me is that she's not here," he says. "To see how I have grown. To just eat a piece of cake from whatever I'm achieving."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Daniel
Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.