A 'people's pageant' takes center stage

As a civil war rumbles on, women storm the catwalk for the annual "Miss Uganda" contest.

Rachael Kakungulu, descendant of the ancient tribe of Buganda, sucks in her tummy and teeters down the runway in her four-inch stilettos and black strapless dress, flashing her best Colgate smile.

From the rear of the giant white tent, a thunderous cheer goes up for the sociology major. "They like you, Rachael," quips the emcee, a cellphone-marketing executive who has just completed his first of two costume changes, from full Congolese regalia into a white suit.

Part Cinderella, part Britney Spears, last month's annual "Miss Uganda" pageant has become a national spectacle here. A diversion from the 16-year civil war that rumbles on in the north, Uganda's beauty contest inspires fervor on the level of World Cup soccer matches, and stirs the same controversies associated with its Western counterparts.

In Uganda, where the average income is less than a dollar a day, thousands shell out $15 a ticket for this year's Miss Uganda finals, held at a swanky resort on Lake Victoria. The crowd watches from plastic chairs that stretch so far back from the stage that the contestants are visible only on two jumbo television screens. VIPs dressed in tuxedos and full-length taffeta gowns sit at tables up front.

"This is our Oscars," says Sylvia Owori, the pageant's organizer and a London fashion-school graduate.

This year, Ms. Owori organized a three-week boot camp for the contestants, who come mostly from rural villages. To turn the 21 Eliza Doolittles into fair ladies, Owori and her staff of a dozen drilled them on everything from how to walk and talk to what sort of company a beauty queen should keep.

Among the hopefuls was Leyla Farid, an 18-year-old high school student from the eastern village of Mbale, whose heroine is British supermodel Naomi Campbell. Susan Alobo, who comes from the country's war-torn north, told the judges her ambition was to become a general in the Ugandan Army. Asked what she had gained from participating in the pageant, 19-year-old Salmah Mirembe, a would-be travel agent, said: "It has helped me to come out and discover my confidence. It has made me into a respectable woman."

Local newspapers carry pages of coverage each day starting weeks before the pageant itself. A pick-your-own-winner contest sponsored by a South African cellphone company drew nearly 60,000 participants. Kampalans, known for their trendy clothes regardless of income level, flock to the event in halter tops and heels.

Some Ugandans, meanwhile, wonder why something as banal as a beauty contest has the country so transfixed. The Monitor, a Kampala daily, bitterly lampooned the country's obsession with the pageant at a time when scores of Ugandans have been massacred by rebels in the north. The leader of a fundamentalist Muslim sect here publicly condemned the contest, likening its organizers to "brothel owners who turn young girls into prostitutes."

"The whole beauty pageant concept – that a woman should look a certain way and walk a certain way – really runs away from the traditional African perception of beauty," says Florence Ebila, who teaches a course on the portrayal of women in the media at Kampala's Makerere University.

Owori argues that her pageant is about more than physical beauty. (This year's winner, 23-year-old Rehema Nakuya, is in her final year of medical school.) Perhaps more important, she says it allows for a sense of national pride in a small, very poor country where reasons to feel proud are often in short supply.

"In another part of the world, I don't think it would make much difference," says Owori, "but here, people feel that they own this event. We're doing something for our country."

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