My headmaster approached us with the sheepish but entitled look he gets on his face when he wants something done. He handed us the thick expensive paper from the Regional Education Office, with the official government seal and all. We, he said, had been identified to serve as chaperons and coaches for the first annual, insh'allah, Miss 22nd July Scholarship Pageant. My counterpart for the girls club and I looked at each other, looked at the paper and looked back at my headmaster in silence, all while trying to keep our mouths from gaping open in shock. You want us, us, to chaperone and train girls for a beauty pageant?!
Don't you know we are feminists? Don't you know that beauty pageants are evil and that they exploit a girl's looks and sexuality to feed into some sort of twisted fantasy invented by men? Don't you know you know that girls should be valued for their brains and their abilities rather then the circumference of their hips or the symmetry of their face?
We nervously glanced at each other. "We don't think we are really the best people for this, we don't really agree with beauty pageants, shouldn't the girls be focusing on their exams, shouldn't we support them in that way?" I spoke up, speaking for both of us since it is more acceptable for me, the outsider, to question the administration. "No, you will do fine. This is a government mandate. Choose two girls and train them. Make sure they win!" he said as he quickly walked away, grateful that he had delegated the responsibility and it was no longer his to worry about.
So that is how I found myself in the very absurd situation of serving as a pageant coach for two adolescent African girls in a country that is still struggling to discern the difference between authentic gender empowerment and mere tokenism to satisfy international donors. Since Haddy (my counterpart and very good friend) and I didn't seem to have much choice in the matter, we decided we should try the best we could with the girls and try and keep their intelligence and commitment to making a difference in the community at the forefront and just keep the beauty aspect in the background. With the help of other teachers in the school we chose two girls from grade 7 and 8 to represent the school at the regional competition. Haddy trained them on how to walk gracefully (or majestically as Gambians like to say), speak loudly and clearly with chins up instead of eyes instead of eyes cast down in the customary pose of girls here and helped them write a platform speech on a topic of importance to their community as well as drilling them on facts of Gambian history and government, post coup since that is the only history that really matters anyway. I was away for most of the training but was delighted to come back and see Haddy taking charge and really being devoted to seeing the girls succeed. I helped coach them as well, but I was much more an assistant to Haddy than anything. Which is how it should be, these girls need Haddy, a successful and empowered Gambian woman, to be their mentor and role model far more than they need me.
After about two weeks of training we were off to the regional capital to compete against other junior secondary school age girls. The whole day was basically a calamity of the typical mismanagement, lack of leadership and cluelessness that too often characterize government offices in this country. In short, the competition was supposed to start at 9 am but didn't start till 4pm, their was no MC so they coerced Haddy into doing it for them, and half the girls that showed up weren't told what to bring or how to prepare. Luckily, my bestest bud Rachel was a judge so we kept each other company and tried to laugh amidst the chaos and chalk it up to one more crazy experience. At one point the two of us were sitting in front of a gigantic plate of rice trying to eat lunch while about 50 high school boys ran all around us trying to take chairs and tables outside, all while shouting at the top of their lungs. Benachin (common Gambian rice dish) in the midst of chaos.
The regional competition went well when it finally started, our two girls did excellent and were easily the most well prepared and demonstrated the best speaking skills. The other 30 or so girls in their category did well too but it was very apparent that they were nervous and often couldn't even complete, or sometimes start their speeches. It is incredibly difficult for an adolescent to get up in front of hundreds of peers and speak on a subject, even more so when your entire life you have had it drilled in to you that you should be seen and not heard, you should never look someone in the eyes and you are more valuable for work and child bearing then for what you have to say. In addition to their speeches and answering questions about the government, the girls had to display two or three "looks", this being a beauty pageant after all. One of the "looks" was a traditional outfit to celebrate their tribe or ethnicity. This aspect was actually kind of cool and some of the girls had beautiful traditional fabrics and jewelery they borrowed from anuties or grandmothers. For the other "looks" the girls could wear whatever they wanted which sometime lead to nice respectful kompletes and normal fancy African dresses but also sometimes lead to painted on gold lame hooker clothes. This last "look" is sadly an all to common occurrence, especially among young girls, as they desperately try to look Western and dress grown up with little or no knowledge of actual fashion trends. This annoying proclivity to skintight pants and hoochy skirts quickly caused the potentially empowering scholarship competition to descend into sexual exploitation and a wife finding event for creepy male teachers and village men. As much as I rolled my eyes at the whole idea of a beauty pageant in general and especially a beauty pageant in a less then open, Muslim country, it was a good learning oppurtunity and I gave me another oppurtunity to witness the unnerving clash of cultures present in much of world as the youth start to challenge the accepted norms and traditions of their societies. This was no more apparent that day then when I glanced over to see about twenty devout men observing the evening call to prayer to the tune of Britney's eternally classy tune "Toxic".
Throughout the entire prep period for the regional and national competitions I was consistenly proud and more in love then ever with my girls club counterpart Haddy. She totally stepped it up and took a real interest in helping the girls succeed and be the best they could be. Whether she was kicking ass as MC, pageant coach or keeping the brains aspect at the forefront for the girls. It was great to see the girls depending on her and her rising to meet their needs and being an excellent role model all around. It was a great moment in our work and friendship together to be sitting next to each other and both of us erupting into cheers and brimming with pride when Ely and Mamie got first and second at the regional competition and then when Ely made it into the top 10 at the national competition.
At the national level competition it was a whole different ball game then at our rinky dink regional. They put us up in a really nice hotel that most Gambians never get to experience because it caters exclusively to tourists and is ridiculously expensive. There were girls from all over the country and there was a notable division between the girls from the provinces and those from the capital city and surrounding areas. The girls from the city are just so much more exposed here, they take for granted their televisions, qualified teachers, schools with actual books and equipment, parents with salaries, education officials who are actually held accountable for the support the give their schools and having an ease with the English language simply because they actually hear it spoken outside the walls of the school. And as one can easily guess, with these relative privileges comes a bit of snobbery and backbiting directed at "uncivilized" girls from bush. I guess it wouldn't truly be a beauty pageant without a little cat fighting and low blows but still discouraging to see a girl with all the privileges her nation can afford her looking down on a girl who is actually living a much more realistic Gambian life because she happens to live a mere 50 k up river.
To somewhat even the playing field all the girls were trained for two weeks by this great Liberian boss lady teaching the girls how to walk gracefully like a lady. All the girls were provided fancy shoes and fancy dresses, tons of meat and soda to eat and excursions to see cultural or historical sites around that capital area when they weren't training. All in all the girls really enjoyed and were very excited about the free clothes and fancy hairdos. The actual competition portion of the two weeks was intense, dreadfully long and lasted into the wee hours of the morning. All the girls from our region did great and you could really see how much they had grown and how much confidence they had gained through all the training in the past couple weeks compared to their performances at the regional competition. But one of my students and member of my Girls Club qualified for the finals so it was all worth it in the end!
The final mega competition was insane. I don't even want to know how much money went into it. I couldn't afford a $40 ticket to get in to watch Ely. So ever resourceful I pulled a super ghetto move and watched from the balcony of my counterparts hotel room. The whole week Ely had been making us nervous cause she didn't really seem that into it and we were worried she wasn't prepared and would embarrass herself on national TV. She is a bit of a book worm anyway and not all that into beauty queen stuff and fancy clothes anyway so I just figured she was tired and wanted to go home to her family. But boy, that kid had it all figured out, she was just being modest and coy. Her speech on HIV/AIDS was perfect, her English perfect. She sang beautifully and answered her questions on the government and history of The Gambia correctly too. When the winners were finally announced at 6am Haddy called me to tell me to wake me from my half sleep to go out on the balcony. I heard them announce third and second and I felt my heart drop. But then they said her name and I was jumping up and down on the balcony like a crazy person hugging the chicken pocked student I was taking care of, so proud, so happy for Ely.
Turns out she had it all together the whole time, she just doesn't like making a big thing of herself. I thought surely Ely couldn't go from ninth place in the preliminaries to first in the finals despite the great job she had done. But she did. She got first in the entire nation for the middle school students. Her prize is absolutely free education thru university, a monthly stipend and a science lab for her school. Her parents never have to worry about whether they can afford the really good senior secondary school she will no doubtedly get in thanks to her brainy dedication to her studies. She even gets to meet the prez! Our little school in the provinces will be on national radio and TV, the teachers will gain prestige and maybe now more people will be willing to come teach in the provinces. Maybe this helps proove the girls in the bush aren't as backward and dumb as everyone wanted to believe. The little Manjago (very small Christian minority from Guinea Bissau) from the bush took it all! And as for Haddy and me, these two feminists couldn't be prouder of our beauty queen.
*pics of the event on Flickr link