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09/23/2010

Beauties and the beasts

ECOWAS-2010-100

Miss ECOWAS 2010 winner, Ramatu Sidic, shows off her crown. Photo by Antoinette Sarpong.

By Antoinette Sarpong

“They drugged me, and I started killing,” he said.

“I chopped off hands,” said another.

They were just boys, who couldn’t have been more than 10, but had seen more violence as child soldiers in Liberia than anyone should see in a lifetime.

As these boys, and several others like them, with equally horrific stories appeared on screen, they begged God for forgiveness.

Then, a video montage of Africans armed with machine guns shooting fellow Africans at close range. They were just random people caught up in the ravages of war.

Bodies hit the floor.

Repeatedly.

Blood spilled.

Repeatedly.

Civilians, who had been maimed with machetes, or small explosives, held their severed limbs, as a shocked and saddened audience couldn’t help themselves but stare at one of the two video screens on either side of a stage.

It was an assault of the senses in surround sound.

The 300 people in the audience, seated under the hauntingly beautiful lighting of chandeliers in the main conference room at the ritzy La Palm Beach Hotel, must have found this horrific imagery quite odd on a night dedicated to beauty.

So did Ekow Blankson, the affable, smooth-talking MC of the event that had brought everyone together that evening, the 2010 Miss ECOWAS Ghana pageant. “I know the images you just saw were disturbing,” said Blankson.

“But the show must go on.”

The annual Miss ECOWAS Ghana beauty pageant is one of many pageants in Ghana. It’s organized by Ghana-based event management group 702 Productions and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission. It’s not only a “cultural showcase of Ghanaian beauty and intellect,” but it’s also a chance for the 14 delegates, from all over Ghana to advocate for issues relevant to peace building and development in the ECOWAS region.

This year, the focus took aim at the eradication of small arms and light weapons, of which an estimated 30 million are smuggled, sold and traded in Africa, resulting in the imagery that had just stunned the audience.

But as MC Blankson suggested, the show went on, in typical pageant style. There were a series of catwalks in traditional outfits representing each delegate’s region. There was also a showcase of breathtaking fashion from up and coming Ghanaian designers, after which, the 14 beauties were whittled down to ten.

There were musical interludes and dance performances as contestants, no doubt, ran around chaotically backstage changing outfits.

Also, as expected, there was an esteemed panel of judges, comprised of prominent Ghanaians from the business community and public office, who posed questions to the delegates about issues related to politics, peacekeeping and development. Of course, there were many beautiful contestants, ranging in age from 20 to 25 years old who had primped and prepped for this evening for months.

There were glossed lips, perfectly coiffed black curls, and huge pearly white smiles that, if pageant clichés are true, were perhaps held firmly in place during those tense elimination periods, with Vaseline.

What was quite unexpected though, as the top 10 became five and the costumed strutting was replaced with “peace speeches” from three delegates, was the spotlight shifting from the beauty contest to the actual issues in the ECOWAS nations.

“We need to work more to empower the young people, especially women,” said delegate number 11, 25-year-old Kaimo Lutterodt.

“The youth have no jobs so they turn to crime,” Lutterodt continued. “Companies need to introduce apprentice schemes for young Ghanaians.”

Lutterodt, an articulate crowd favourite, entered the competition because she was "dedicated to the meaningful cause.” She also stood to win 3000 Ghana Cedis ($2,200 CAD), with a small ransom of other prizes and the chance to represent Ghana at the 2010 Peace Pageant at Sierra Leone in November.

Though the prizes and bragging rights alone were surely a strong motivator for the contestants, many of them, like Lutterodt, expressed a similar, desire to be ambassadors for Ghana so that they could address key issues.

Like 21-year-old communications student, Edna M. Agamah who said “the biggest challenge to youth in Ghana is that old men and women don’t know when to retire.”

If the ECOWAS pageant were awarded on crowd support, the thunderous applause and laughter that erupted after Agamah’s comment alone would have guaranteed her the diamond encrusted crown.

But instead, Agamah finished a respectable third, with 22-year-old year old Ramatu Sidic, from Accra taking the title.

Like so many pageants before, a stream of tears, a swarm of photographers and a thousand flashes followed as the former Miss ECOWAS, Sherilyn Reindorf Partey handed over of the proverbial scepter to Sidic.

It was definitely a night honouring the potential in 14 African beauties, which seemed fitting in a country renowned for its own beauty and potential. Initially, I was skeptical about whether a beauty pageant would empower young Ghanaian women and raise awareness about the issues that they face.

As the night wore on, my cynicism subsided.

All this was done, to my complete surprise, tastefully, though still with a lot of T&A: thought-provoking and articulate dialogue.

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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