Strutting Toward Another World
Friday, November 30, 2007
JUBA, Sudan -- One recent afternoon in this dusty frontier town, soldiers lazed under trees, goats trotted down red-dirt roads, and outside Juba's only conference center, a place called Home and Away, giggly young women in stiletto heels practiced their best catwalk struts under a hot, setting sun.
In a small sign that peace and modernity are settling over this region devastated by Africa's longest civil war, rehearsals were underway for southern Sudan's first-ever beauty pageant -- Miss Malaika, or Miss Angel.
"When we do the turn, we're going to go like this at the end," said one of the pageant organizers, jutting her right hip. "Let me see your turns!"
Adak Paul, who once escaped falling bombs by diving into a dirt trench, flashed a toothy smile and swiveled. Awar Ring, who grew up in a crowded Kenyan refugee camp and wore a T-shirt reading "Love Forever," struck a pose worthy of Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek.
In clear-heeled mules and secondhand skirts, plastic pearls and sequined belts, the 10 finalists, whose talents include detecting the sound of approaching Antonov bombers, clopped down the outdoor patio like so many lanky fashionistas in the making.
A sign for the Miss Malaika contest asked: "Do you think you have what it takes?" The contestants in Saturday's final event seem confident they do.
"I see that I'm very beautiful," said Paul, 24, explaining matter-of-factly one reason she decided to compete. "I have nice skin and nice teeth, and I know how to speak very well. I wanted to do this to show other girls in my village that they can do this also -- that things are going on in the world and they can do these things, too."
Although the Miss Malaika pageant is conventional in many ways, in others it is distinctly African.
Contestants must parade in day wear and evening wear, for instance, but also in traditional dress. Natural hair, rather than chemically straightened hair, is preferred. Though some Sudanese women tend to be naturally tall and thin, curvy figures are appreciated, organizers said. And the use of skin-lightening cream is forbidden.
Skin lightening is still a craze in Juba, a practice left over from the Arab-dominated government's wartime occupation of this town in the mostly animist and Christian south. Southern Sudanese women, whose skin tones range from chocolate to almost blue-black, often used such products in an attempt to suit the preferences of the lighter-skinned Arab men.
But now, "we can be proud of our beauties," said Evans Maendeh, a founder of the South Sudan Artists Association, a contest sponsor. "Even though the war destroyed so much, at least we can show that we have some culture."
The winner of the Miss Malaika pageant will go on to compete in larger pageants around the world. A South Sudan version was held in exile in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, two years ago, but Maendeh said the idea was always to move it home after the war ended in 2005.