Burdens of beauty

These are accomplished, intelligent women -- what are they doing here?


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I’m a man, to be sure, but I’m also a card-carrying feminist. So why am I here at the second annual Miss AfriCanada Pageant in Seneca College’s Minkler Auditorium? I don’t quite know.

But, feminist or not, I’ve got my favourite chosen, my fingers crossed, and I’m hoping that the six judges will see it my way. I even dug out my moth-eaten dashiki (the brightly coloured shirt that’s a sartorial staple for any black man) and have asked my sister to do the same. When she turns up trying to pass off Indonesian batik for African kente cloth, not a soul in the 500-member audience — 90-per-cent African — is taken in.


They’re psyched

Onstage, the 12 contestants from Canada’s continental-African communities vie for the crown, and after 30 hours of rehearsal, many more of costume fittings and days of being drilled on questions likely to be tossed at any aspiring queen, they’re psyched for the contest.

But they will be spared a bathing- suit segment, according to pageant coordinator Wofo Yaw Nyarko of the African Heritage Association. “African culture is about modesty. With contestants from Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the heritage association is trying to foster a cross-cultural exchange between the groups.”

In Toronto, the Ghanaians once held sway with a population of 40,000, but the more recent immigration from East Africa has usurped their position. Now the Somalis reign supreme with 70,000-plus in Toronto, and there are 45,000 Ethiopians.

“Our pageant is really a showcase of African culture,” Nyarko says. “Unlike traditional pageants, our judges will assess the girls on their talent, intelligence and answers to skill-testing questions.”

A beauty contest without points for beauty? Yeah, right. I press and Nyarko finally comes clean: “The judges will also consider the contestants’ poise.” Bingo.

In the early 90s, Canadian feminist organizations lobbied successfully for an end to the Miss Canada Pageant. But the smaller, community-based pageants that once emptied their winners into the Canuck contest continue to run.

There are at least 10 such contests hosted for black Canadians — Miss Ethiopia, Miss Jamaican, Miss Trinidadian and Miss Black-Canada, to name a few. But the current Miss AfriCanada, Edna Kavuma, says that continental-Africans haven’t been able to fully take part in those pageants. “We needed one that focuses on Africans.”

I flip through the program to get a closer look at contestants’ bios, and find their heights have been included with their country of origin, age, talent and career aspirations.

“If this is all about intelligence and talent,” I ask my sister, “how do they justify including that stat?”

“How do they justify this whole damn show?” she quips.


Black beauty

But in a country crazy for blond hair and blue eyes, it’s easier than you think. “A black girl in Toronto is effectively told that she’s ugly,” my sister suggests. “And I can perhaps empathize with a pageant that helps to promote black beauty.”

Still, black pageants have historically done little to affirm the idea that black is beautiful. In fact, they seem to prefer light brown, some going so far as to apply the notorious brown-paper-bag test — if you’re darker than kraft paper, you’re vying to be Miss Congeniality and nothing more.

But Miss AfriCanada contestants know the score, and I watch women who a couple of weeks ago had kinky low fros now sporting synthetic braids and pencil-straight updos in styles that mimic the Somali and Eritrean natural coifs.

Yet there’s one other woman who has remained true to her roots. Jane Nteyafas, representing Uganda. We spoke a couple of weeks earlier at a pageant rehearsal. “I’m going to wear my hair natural — no relaxer, no extensions,” she beams. “A lot of the other girls say they’ll be doing the same. We’ll see.”

As it turns out, they didn’t.

Like most contestants, Nteyafas was born in Africa, but while most of the woman have their families cheering from the audience, the 24-year-old is in Canada alone.

I wonder aloud why such a smart woman — master of four languages and microcomputer applications student — would heed the cattle-call and enter a beauty pageant.

“Miss AfriCanada will travel to Africa as a spokesperson for AIDS prevention (50 per cent of tonight’s ticket sales go to fund safe-sex education in Africa),” she explains. “And I have been separated from my family for five years. I want to see them and Uganda again.”

Another contestant covets the title for a different reason. “Africa is so much more than AIDS and children starving on Worldvision infomercials,” says Gifty Kusi, representing Africa’s first independent democracy, Ghana. “It’s a magnificent continent, more diverse than you can imagine. I’d like to tell Canada about it and dispel some myths.”

Kusi tells me that “Gifty” is a Ghanaian name given to a first daughter, meaning “gift from God.” I wonder how a judge decides that one family’s gift is better than another’s.

But enough carping and preaching. As Nyarko says, this night is as much cultural exposition as vanity fair, and the audience is treated to a showcase of African dance from 10 countries. One by one, the women take the stage for the talent portion of the contest — a Kiganda dance from Uganda, a Shona dance from Zimbabwe, a Saraka from the Democratic Republic of Congo. No size-six hips can move like theirs do, and the audience revels in their womanhood.

Still, there can be just one winner, and before the five finalists are called, the very surreal happens. Uganda’s Jane Nteyafas faints. The shocked audience looks on as fellow contestant Nana Aba Duncan from Ghana, the crowd favourite, delivers mouth-to-mouth. Nteyafas comes to, and Duncan is hailed a heroine.

But when it’s time for the winner’s wave, the heroine gets no further than first runner-up.

The crowd, incensed, takes to its feet to boo and curse. Believe it or not — the crowd doesn’t — the fainting beauty from Uganda comes back to win.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Ask any brotha from Motown to Mogadishu and he’ll tell you, “You can’t keep an African woman down.” Canada take note.

My sister and I leave smiling. It’s only natural that the one contestant brave enough to wear the African crown of glory — a kinky, unprocessed afro — should also wear the crown of Miss AfriCanada 2000.

MISS AFRICANADA — THE BALANCE SHEET CONTESTANTS

EXPENSES: (approximately)

* Native costume: $500

* Talent costume: $500

* Two evening gowns: $1,500

* Accessories: $500

* Rehearsal time/ transport: $500

TOTAL: $3,500

WINNER’S PRIZES

* Return ticket to Africa: $2,000

* Travelling money: $1,000

* Scholarship money: $500

* TV and VCR: $1,200

* Makeup: $500

TOTAL: $5,200

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