Magazine article New African

The Inner Spirit of Beauty Contests

Magazine article New African

The Inner Spirit of Beauty Contests

Article excerpt

The increasingly popular African and Caribbean beauty contests in London serve purposes that are more profound than their counterparts in the white world. They are not mere spectacles but lie at the heart of social cohesion for London's dynamic black diaspora.

Beauty--or, rather, beauty contests--lie at the heart of business and social cohesion for the UK's Caribbean and African communities. This oft-maligned activity, for which it seems to be mandatory for media commentators to be adversely critical, has provided the engine for social, commercial and political progress.

Claudia Jones, an icon with impeccable black, feminist and Marxist credentials, is credited with being among the pioneers of their promotion. Their significance is evident both in the history and in their present role of bringing the population of the diaspora closer together within itself and with the national homeland.

I was reminded of this most recently on calling in at the final rehearsal of Miss Uganda UK at the Ark Globe Academy, a regular school, set in Bermondsey, an inner-city area of south-east London. This location, perfect for its purpose, was far removed from the usual paraphernalia of pageantry.

Jacqueline Matovu, the prime mover behind JM Promotions, told me: "We are going into our eighth year of holding the event annually, making it one of the biggest, [most] extravagant Ugandan events in the diaspora". She went on to detail the charities which the project supports and the service it provides in promoting talent, cultural awareness and diversity. While all that is indeed valuable, to me it is not the most significant aspect of these contests.

Nearly all UK-based Caribbean and African national communities seem to have their own contests and titles, though few are held regularly and none with the constancy of 'Miss Uganda UK' or of 'Miss Ghana UK', which is the undisputed leader in this field. No other activity provides such a vista of education and civic awareness, as well as a platform for cultural promotion.

The Miss Uganda UK grand finale commenced with the singing of both the Ugandan and the British national anthems. The homeland affinity was represented by the presence of the guest of honour, the newly-appointed Uganda High Commissioner in London, His Excellency Julius Motto, and by the performance of traditional dances, singing and poetry.

The accompanying entertainment comprised a showcase for UK Ugandan singers, musicians and dancers. During her reign, the contest winner, 19-year-old student Jan Mukiibi, is expected to carry out responsibilities in both countries.

This event, while being commendably set in a locality in which its supporters live, is a far cry from those shows held in draughty neighbourhood church halls of the very early 1960s.

Rooted in the community

There is a big difference between white English and black African/ Caribbean beauty contests. The former, in their present form, derive primarily from the bathing beauty contests which provided entertainment on a summer seaside outing. The participants and the spectators have little in common: the one come to perform and the other to watch.

With African/Caribbean titles there is less difference between those on the stage and those in the stalls. Both participate. The public are at one with, and are an extension of, the contestants. As such they have more in common with the traditional English village contests of earlier years.

The attendance is overwhelmingly female, supporting and encouraging their sisters, daughters, girlfriends and neighbours--as are the promoters--and increasingly these days contests carry the slogan 'empowering women'.

When immigrants from the West Indies first arrived they had little money or opportunity with which to advertise their products and services. So they used the only facility available to them--their own selves. …

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