Moving Mountains

As Standing Voice Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary Year, Co-Founder Anton Bilton Remembers His Own Remarkable Journey Into This Cause

I almost feel like this cause purposefully found me. I don’t really watch much TV but was flicking through channels at the end of the news one evening when I saw a headline for a documentary about people with albinism in Africa. It was just starting, so I put it on.

When the programme ended an hour later, I was in absolute shock at what I’d witnessed. It horrified me that you had babies being born and, within seconds, the mother-in-law, the father, the grandparents, perhaps even the mother herself, were instantly ostracising this new born child, sometimes to the point of murder. Even if the families were accepting of the predicament, the baby was still arriving into a society where it would be ostracised, perceived to be demonic and possibly mutilated for its body parts.

It struck me that if I met somebody today—in a business meeting, or waiting room, on a plane, or wherever—and later heard that that person had been mugged, beaten, hit by a car, or diagnosed with some ghastly disease, my compassion—my direct human empathy for that person—would be one of care and concern, despite not really knowing them. It is this notion—of empathy for our fellow human beings, including those we don’t know—that makes us human.

But here, watching the documentary, I saw a child being born into a world where no empathy was extended. I could not think of a single other scenario in the world where this existed: a baby emerging from its mother’s womb and, in that moment of recognition of the difference in the colour of its skin, its life is changed forever. It really upset me, and still upsets me now.

That evening, after the programme, I had great difficulty getting to sleep. I woke constantly in the night and the next morning, I got up early and searched the internet to try and really understand the situation for people with albinism in Africa. I sat there for two or three hours, and I realised that there didn’t seem to be many charities focused on helping these people. It shocked me as here was a cause at the height of wretchedness and I thought there would be more people doing something about it.

I got on the phone to my contact at Amnesty International who I support and asked “What’s happening here?” They explained that larger charities often prioritise huge pan-African issues like poverty and hunger, rather than supporting small minority situations. Albinism seemed to be one of those causes that just fell by the wayside.

So, I decided that should not—and would not—be the case. Through the miracle of the internet and the concept of seven degrees of separation I tracked down Josephat Torner in Tanzania, who’d been featured in the documentary, and through him I discovered that what I had seen was an abridged version of “In the Shadow of the Sun”, Harry’s incredible film. I watched the full documentary and contacted Harry and we met in London. Like me, he had been deeply moved by the plight of these people and we went on to start the charity: Standing Voice. It was just one of those marvellous moments where it all came together: I was moved and wanted to help financially, I trusted Harry, and the charity was born.

I then hosted various private screenings in London and in Switzerland and persuaded many friends to come and see the film and to support the charity, which they kindly did. As an example of extreme generosity, Sir Antony Gormley attended a screening at the Bulgari Hotel, and kindly donated a sculpture to us, which we sold at Sotheby’s for £180,000.

In 2014 I went on a Standing Voice Trustee fact-finding mission to Tanzania and I came face-to-face with the issue for the first time. We were up very early, with a punishing schedule as we criss-crossed the country visiting camps and we went out to Ukerewe Island. I remember each night as I got into bed being overwhelmed with emotion from the suffering I had seen, thinking “How is this happening?” I cried every night of the trip. I just couldn’t understand it and I still don’t understand it now. Where’s the purpose in all this sadness?

On the way back from that trip, we flew out of Kilimanjaro Airport and as I was in the car approaching the airport and looking out of the window I saw this huge mountain. Everyone said, “That’s the mountain, Kilimanjaro” and it dawned on me in my sad state, “You know what, for these kids, I’m going to climb that mountain. I’m going to persuade 20 of my close friends to join me and we’re going to do it”. We did do it, and we raised circa £300,000 in the process.

The night I climbed the summit, when I was at my worst state at about 4am, when I was so cold and so tired and was about to turn around, I kept on focusing on the suffering of the people I’d seen in the documentary, and later met in real life: the agony of succumbing to skin cancer, and the agony in one’s heart of being hated by society. As soon as I focused on that and really, deeply felt their pain as if it were my own, my climb to the summit was finished.

This time, I’m preparing to climb Mount Kenya. I’ve got one very focused, specific thing I want to achieve and that is getting all of those kids out of the wretched Buhangija camp where children have been abandoned and there’s no love nor stimulus. It’s terribly, terribly sad to see these children abandoned by their parents. Just think on that for a moment; being abandoned by your parents.

I can’t think of anything else in the world where the lack of human empathy exists as much as in the plight of these people. It’s hard to face the issues of skin cancer, low life expectancy, poor eyesight and therefore poor learning: those are really tough challenges to handle, and yet, to be hated and ostracised on top of that is……….unthinkable.

We must work hard together and give what we can to solve their plight. Only in empathy and compassion is our humanness really expressed and expressing one’s love is all that counts in life. Nothing more.