Raising awareness and understanding Vitiligo

By Esther Muhozi
On 3 May 2024 at 07:53

Vitiligo is more than just a cosmetic condition; it’s a chronic autoimmune disorder that leads to depigmentation in patches of skin. This loss of natural color or pigment affects about 1% of the global population, including many in Rwanda. Despite its prevalence, vitiligo is often misunderstood, leading to social stigma and isolation for those affected.

Winnie Harlow, a Canadian supermodel with vitiligo, has transformed her skin condition into a powerful narrative of resilience and acceptance, inspiring many around the world. In Rwanda, the singer Confiance Munyaneza, known as ’Jowana,’ represents a local voice of courage and positivity, showing that vitiligo does not define one’s abilities or self-worth.

Medical insights into Vitiligo

According to Francoise Gahongayire, a dermatologist at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, vitiligo occurs when melanocytes, the cells responsible for skin pigmentation, are destroyed. "Vitiligo is not just about visible patches; it’s about understanding an autoimmune process where the body mistakenly attacks its pigment cells," she explains.

Jean-Chrysostome Kagimbana, Director of Medical Services at Rwanda Military Hospital, adds, "Treatment varies with each individual and while some treatments can restore color, there are cases where the pigment loss is permanent, especially when it affects smaller, specific areas."

Symptoms and impact

Vitiligo typically presents as milky-white patches on the skin, commonly affecting hands, feet, arms, and face, though it can appear anywhere. The condition can also lead to white hair on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and body hair. Beyond physical symptoms, vitiligo can profoundly affect psychological well-being, causing low self-esteem and social anxiety.


Researchers believe that vitiligo may be triggered by factors such as sunburn, stress, or exposure to certain chemicals, which can either initiate or exacerbate the condition. A genetic predisposition may also play a role, as those with a family history of vitiligo are at higher risk of developing the disorder.

Empowering through awareness

The stories of individuals like Winnie Harlow and Confiance Munyaneza are vital in empowering others and combating the stigma associated with vitiligo. Their experiences underline the importance of visibility and acceptance in media and popular culture, which can significantly influence public perception and self-esteem.

In Rwanda, the Anti Vitiligo Foundation has been instrumental in changing perceptions and providing support to those affected. This organization works closely with the Ministry of Health and local healthcare providers to offer education, support, and treatment options. Their efforts include extensive awareness campaigns involving local media and the distribution of educational materials.

Through their work and the increasing visibility of vitiligo in the public eye, we can hope for a future where vitiligo is not seen as a limitation but as a unique aspect of human diversity.