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Kenyan Beauty Pagent: An Opportunity Or Disgrace? - 2002-09-06

Beauty pageants are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Kenya. Reporter Katy Salmon visited the Miss Malaika contest to find out why.

It’s a Friday night. Nairobi’s Carnivore nightclub is packed with a rowdy crowd, eager to check out the 23 young women competing in the semi-finals of the Miss Malaika beauty pageant.

Emcee: "Please give a warm welcome to the Miss Malaika beauty contenders." Music and cheering

Miss Malaika – which means Angel in Kiswahili – is the fifth beauty pageant to be launched in Kenya.

There are so many pageants in the country that several of the girls on the catwalk tonight have already been seen in other competitions.

Yet the show’s organizer, Pinky Ghelani, herself a former Miss India Kenya, swears that Miss Malaika is different from all the other beauty pageants.

She says, “The reason it is different is because it’s a truly African pageant. There’s no height restriction as such. 5-3? Yes, good enough. No waist, bust and hip size. You don’t have to be a certain size. Though you have to look proportionate. Everything is natural with Miss Malaika. There’s no cosmetic surgery, no hair extensions. And more than beauty, we are looking for intellect.”

Intellect is certainly not what one enthusiastic member of the audience, Leo Kerama, is interested in.

He says, “I just came to look at their nice bodies and you know, big you know, big matata (laughs).”

Former Miss Tourism Kenya, Debra Sanaipei, is quick to dismiss such sexist comments. She explains how being a beauty queen has made her one of the most high profile celebrities in Kenya.

She says, “Men in Kenya may see it as a meat market but we as models have seen that we have moved up from that. We were here to promote tourism. We got to go to London, Chicago, Germany, talk on international stages, get on C-N-N. And given that chance you get so much public recognition, international recognition. Magazines still call and say can we have you saying something about women’s issues, children’s issues, F-G-M, tourism, politics.”

Ms. Sanaipei was such a hit as Miss Tourism 2001, there was even a debate in the Daily Nation newspaper over whether her term should be extended.

This is something that surprises outsiders, such as Rachel Armstrong, a tourist from New Zealand.

She says, “You know, it’s not really worth anything is it. It’s like people standing up there and just kind of just being up there and being pretty and that just doesn’t contribute anything to world any more does it? Maybe in the old days that’s what women were meant to be. We were standing there and there’s like two trucks of overland travelers just taking the piss out of it the whole time. Just because you know, ‘Oh, I want to save children and save the world.’ It’s like, mmm. Do you really want to do that or are you just saying that to win the competition and win a bit of cash or win a bit of a prize? No one takes them seriously from New Zealand I don’t think.”

But Kenyans take their beauty queens very seriously.

Zawadi Mawanda, a reporter with Nation F-M, says they are important ambassadors for their country because they promote Kenya as a tourist destination.

She says, “We’ve gone ahead from the basic concept of just considering it a beauty concept to actually using it to sell some of the assets that we have in the country. At least Miss Malaika will be selling the image of Kenya. And you have Miss Tourism who go around selling the animals. They’re also celebrities within the town and it becomes something that you want to be like, a role model as it were. So I think it’s nice.”

But others do not buy into this argument.

Mumbi Macera, a lecturer on gender at the University of Nairobi, believes the women who take part in Kenya’s numerous beauty pageants could do with a strong dose of feminist education.

She says, “Feminist ideas are new things which probably most of the contestants don’t even think about. From my point of view, I see beauty pageants as ways of objectifying the female body, commercializing and sexualizing the female body. The girls may not be sensitized and educated about the facts. The concept of feminism is kind of withdrawn out of the whole thing.”

Wayua Muli, a reporter with the Saturday Nation magazine, says beauty pageants are popular in Kenya because women do not have many other routes to fame.

She says, “We’ve got a number of girls here looking for their big break. And they’ve been conned into thinking that a beauty pageant is the way to get recognized, your sort of foothold into the world of movies and music. Because they look at people like the former Miss America, Vanessa Williams, and they think that that’s how you get into it. And given a country like Kenya where you really don’t have any other opportunities, we don’t have talent scouts for singers; we don’t have talent scouts for acting. This is I think how they think they’ll get their big break.”

For Miss Malaika contestant Irene Odipo, being a beauty queen is almost as good as becoming the president.

“Let’s face it,” she says, “Africa is not at the level right now where we are ready to have a female president. It might happen. I don’t know. But to have something like a beauty pageant, it’s not at the same standard but it’s something similar. You have a title and you have a position in society so you can use it to your advantage and to the advantage of other people.”

This might not be so far fetched. Ms Sanaipei, whose father is a prominent Cabinet minister, says her ambition is to become Kenya’s first female president. Just watch this space.