Vitiligo is a skin condition where the body attacks its own melanocytes resulting in the hair turning grey and skin turning white all over the body. There is no known cure to vitiligo and it affects up to 1 per cent of the entire world. In 2009, I was diagnosed in Haldon St. Medical Centre, Lakemba with vitiligo and it was only when my skin began to lose its pigment that I embraced being a Samoan woman.
The first white patches were on my chest. I thought it was an allergic reaction related to years of childhood asthma, eczema or hay fever or even that one time I had pneumonia and Mum still forced me into this poofy white bridesmaid dress at Aunty Likia’s huge three-day-long wedding. It could’ve been the stress of being the first in my aiga to go to university. I’d leave the doctor’s with blotchy, red rashes after different treatments: UV light therapy, antibiotics, topical creams, antihistamines – but the patches started to spread down my torso. I joined online support groups. Every article repeated the same thing, ‘This is vitiligo, only 1 per cent of the world’s population has it. There is no known cure.’
Every article repeated the same thing, ‘This is vitiligo, only 1 per cent of the world’s population has it. There is no known cure.’
I once made the mistake of taking my jacket off while waiting for a train to uni. The train-tracks were sizzling that day. My ponytail was so high it hooked my eyebrows up and gave me pins and needles in my sweaty forehead. As the rusted tuna-can of a train carriage rattled to a stop before me and the doors scratched open, a stumbling, bearded stranger with Victoria Bitters’ breath fell forwards, and when his eyes focused on me, he jabbed a dirty finger at my chest.
‘Ay, you! Why you f**kin’ pour bleach there?’
The muscles in my neck and across my shoulders tensed and though I swallowed hard I couldn’t breathe. The closing train doors hit my shoulder but I squeezed through. He was still shouting and slurring through curses on the platform. In that one exchange, my body belonged to a stranger and in fleeing, I felt I had simply let it happen.
In a few months, the white patches grew around my eyes, my forehead, my mouth, my chin, down my neck, my back, my hands, my knees and my stomach. These patches lacked the melanin I had only just come to terms with. When the sun hit my patches, they became so burnt that they would bleed where the skin peeled. My solution to the burns, the patches, the stares, the comments? Cover up. I was already a fat, frizzy-haired Fob from Western Sydney and my f**ked-up skin was the final straw for me to lose my confidence.
I was already a fat, frizzy-haired Fob from Western Sydney and my f**ked-up skin was the final straw for me to lose my confidence.
Then I went to Samoa in 2012. The air was so thick and hot when I got off the plane that it clung to my maxi-dress and filled my boots like I was stepping in simmering coconut cream. When we go to my family’s village, Lalomalava, my grandmother, who is nicknamed Mama, took one look at my chest and at the white patches around my mouth and eyes and said, ‘O le ‘ila.’ With her glittery cane she pointed to a large European-styled house across the road.
I kissed Mama on the cheek and walked past three tamaiti playing on the tombstone outside the house entrance. I removed my jandals. Glistening on the wall, I recognised the mirrored-glass and silver key-shaped sculptures as those traditionally gifted to children on their 21st birthday in Samoan ceremonies. The keys symbolised opening the door to a new life, adulthood. About 10 different keys hung in a line on a wall.
A beach-towel sized banner of a blue-eyed, fair-skinned Jesus Christ was pinned up on the door that led to the rest of the house. Framed faded black and white photographs of old matai ceremonies and other ancestors were hung up on the wall too, contrasting with the colourful flower-necklaces or lei lazily draped over them.
While the wall was cluttered, the living room itself was almost empty except for a small coffee table on top of which lay a half-mended fishing net. I sat cross-legged on a fine, woven mat. A small woman with a fierce bun of white hair and rivers of wrinkles across her face shuffled into the room and sat down in front of me. Covering my thighs with my ie lavalava as I had been taught growing up, I revealed every vitiligo patch I had so obsessively covered up. I sat still as she traced every border of every patch with her skeletal, crooked fingers. I was to call her what the village called her, Tinā, the respectful Samoan term for mother.
Wrapped in tapa cloth were traditional Samoan tatau tools Tinā would use: a fine-toothed comb with a long perpendicular handle and a small hammer, both carved out of wood and bone.
Wrapped in tapa cloth were traditional Samoan tatau tools Tinā would use: a fine-toothed comb with a long perpendicular handle and a small hammer, both carved out of wood and bone. These were mainly used by men in the ancient practice of tatau, where chiefs of villages adorned almost a third of their bodies with intricate tattoos signifying positions in society and marking their heritage.
Using the hammer to tap the back of the comb onto my skin, the old woman outlined my vitiligo, telling me stories of the village my mother was born in, humming Samoan hymns I couldn’t catch, lecturing me about how I wasn’t allowed to swim or be in the sun for too long while I saw her. Tap, tap, tap. I absorbed every myth and lyric. The dancing comb filled the room when she got too tired to talk.
Tap, tap, tap.
Over five weeks with Tinā, my brown skin returned. Years of failed medicines and painful procedures until this small, frail woman with ancient tattooing tools brought back the pigment in my skin. Vitiligo. One per cent. No cure. I had to return to Australia before completing my treatment but on the eve of my flight, on the last afternoon I’d ever see Tinā, she hugged me tight and told me to do well in life. We cried, two Indigenous brown women on ancestral lands. Today, the only vitiligo patches that remain are the ones on my chest: the first ones I noticed and the ones that had missed out on Tinā’s treatment.
In Western cultures, Tinā is dismissed as a ‘witch doctor’ or ‘shaman’. In Samoan culture, Tinā is a taulasea and her treatment is called fofō. Her position, held primarily by women, is one found across many villages in Samoa and each fofō are sought after in conjunction with medical treatment in hospitals and medical centres. Strangers have reduced Tinā’s work on me to being the placebo effect or that holidaying in a warmer climate contributed to curing me. I may develop vitiligo again as I get older, but in the eight years since visiting Tinā, the only patch remains on my chest. I see that lone patch, close to my heart, as a reminder that my vitiligo was cured through the knowledge passed down from my ancestors.
Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.