Style and substance

The first Miss Africa India contest went beyond bows and curtsies

Dream come true: Olamide Akodu. Dream come true: Olamide Akodu.

When Olamide Akodu, 22, speaks, you want to ask her about her favourite author. Perhaps the Nigerian national studying in Hyderabad fancies Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the international feminist icon and celebrated writer, also from Nigeria? Akodu says she does not follow any author in particular. She does, however, have a lot to say about many other grown-up things—like not letting down your guard in front of smarter and more privileged people, and how you need to own what you have. Maybe her experience as an African woman living in India has given her enough wisdom and emotional maturity to write her own book. Akodu was crowned the first ever Miss India Africa on 8 November in Hyderabad.

The Miss Africa India contest was organised by and for African women living in India. Akodu competed against 15 other contestants based in Odisha, Delhi, Pune and Punjab. They were selected through auditions held from July. The pageant showcased the varied culture of Africa and positioned young African women as agents of change and messengers of peace and love.

In fact, in one of the qualifying rounds in which participants were asked to create their own ensemble, Akodu fashioned into her white silk dress cardboard cut-outs of peace and love symbols. “We wanted people to see love and peace and empowerment through the pageantry,” says Akodu, over the phone. “On the day of the final event, there were both Indians and Africans in the audience and it was a happy event. We can actually come together and do something.” It is a busy day for her; she has back-to-back meetings with the organising team of MAI to plan her strategy for wider engagement.

Most of the contestants were African women in their early twenties and just out of college. They all came here as students from different African countries and now seek deeper integration in the Indian society. With no swimsuit round, the beauty pageant was expressly designed to project what really matters to these women. They displayed their national costumes, designing chops and intellect through the question and answer rounds.

When the judges asked Akodu what she would do if she were to find herself turned into a boy one morning, Akodu was quick to respond in mock panic, “I would immediately want to bounce back to my female body.” Then she added with great confidence and pride, “If I cannot do that, I guess I will have to embrace it and be the best version of the man that I can be. I will be the kind of man that I want to have in my life, that my mum would want to have as a son, that my children would want as a father, that other men would see as a model.” The judges were clearly impressed. In the last round, she wore a mustard yellow and black dress in satin and lace which she had stitched herself. “I really wanted my final dress to represent me,” says the BSc graduate in computer applications. She went home with a prize of Rs1,20,000.

The contest got enough sponsorship to host the visiting women in a hotel for five days and provide them with designer clothes for an introductory dance segment. But largely, the haute couture on display, including in the final round, was by the women themselves. And they booked their own return ticket. “From here on, we want Akodu to participate in different events within the Indian community, especially programmes on women empowerment and awareness building about Africa,” says Laurisca Kalongo, co-organiser of MAI. “She will be the representative for Africans in India, so we can get to know each other better.” Kalongo wanted to disrupt the vicious negative news cycle surrounding the African community in India when she started brainstorming about MAI in February.

Yollandh-Aiwill Koffi from Congo, one of the five finalists of MAI, says she is beyond caring about racial discrimination. Koffi, 24, is busy trying to establish her designer brand for bags and shoes. In the last round of the pageant, she wore a green evening dress she bought for Rs 3,000 two years ago. She has participated in other beauty contests in India but felt this one was the least competitive of them all. Everyone cheered for the others and felt happy for the winner. “I do not think anybody went there to win,” she says.

For Akodu, the contest was not really about beautiful women sashaying down the ramp in beautiful clothes. She said it took a lot of determination for so many African women to gather from different parts of the country to get judged on a public platform. “We, as black women, being able to put ourselves out there, allowing people to judge us, to see us and to show them things about ourselves beyond the physical appearance—that is empowering for us,” she asserts. “Someone, somewhere, somehow must have gained some sort of courage just by watching us.”