Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beauties, Contests and Chaos

In America kids fund raise with bake sales and car washes and Girl Scout cookies.

In Botswana kids raise funds with beauty contests.

You’d be shocked how many beauty contests I’ve seen in this country. One at school, one at the mall in Gaborone, one at the preschool… I’ve been invited to about 20 others. At some point I started declining because I couldn’t bear the blatant superficiality. Plus, the outfits are just offensive. Truly, no 14 year old girl should be prancing down a runway in a mini-skirt and halter top. And if you think that’s a conservative view, consider the cultural dynamics.

How to explain youth and sexuality in Botswana…?

Maybe the clearest example of this tension was demonstrated by the host family I lived with during training. If you remember, my family had 7 kids who all loved to sing and dance. Every day I’d come home from training to find the group of them jumping and shaking and spinning around the living room to African music videos on tv (yes, they had a tv but no running water).

One day I arrived to find the kids particularly enamored by a South African video where the super star sang a 30 second chorus and spent the rest of the time thrusting her body around in a green half-shirt and tight go-go shorts. As the video played, my four sisters shrieked and giggled and talked excitedly to one another. At some point I found myself watching 15-year-old Naillil. When she noticed my attention she replied with a guilty glance and said: “Ah - these girls are beauty. But they bring shame to their families in those clothes.”

So entertainment culture poses an interesting juxtaposition here in Botswana. On the one hand people are fascinated by the flashy media images and sexy modern entertainment but on the other hand there remains this very conservative, traditional undercurrent that makes the whole scene risqué and controversial. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the beauty contest.

And so this is the dilemma that comes crashing towards me in the first PACT meeting of last term.

“Mma Charles can we please, pleeeeeeeease have a beauty contest this time…?!”

I’ve heard the same plea for three terms and each time managed to dodge the request by suggesting other fundraising ideas. Last summer we had a cinema and drama event and the term after that we made and sold jewelry out of magazines.

“But you said we could this time. Can’t we? We’ll do all the work. We’ll work Really Hard! We can raise money for the poor people.”

Sigh. I’m doomed by my affection for all those pretty black eyes and big smiles.

I agree to help them put it together and they cheer and I say:

“No shorts! And No Mini-skirts!”

And they scowl but get over it and run off to find CDs so they can start practicing the parades.

Two months later I’m sitting in the music room and the kids are blasting American hip hop songs from our one radio attached to our one working socket.

The 10 contestants have been perfected their parades but are frantic over the outfits. The older and wealthier students have torn apart their houses to find jeans and dresses and shoes to fit the poorer girls. As always, I am impressed by the sense of community and the willingness to contribute that is such an integral part of this culture.

I’ve follow their lead and done my part by donating three pairs of high heeled shoes to the event. The girls wobble around in them and practice kicks and twirls while I sit in the back and silently pray that no one falls over and breaks their ankle.

When the day of the contest rolls around all the ankles are still in tact but just about everything else has gone wrong.

- Three of our 10 contestant are an hour late due to mothers, aunts and neighbors fretting over the quality of their hair-dos
- The local radio station has come to MC the show but just told us there will be no guest musician (as we advertised to the village for the past 3 months)
- Parents are protesting that the candy sales prices are too high
- There’s a broken door in the back of the school hall where children slip into the performance without paying
- The traditional dance group and three of our sports teams have made it to the nationals and are away for competitions this weekend—depleting out audience by hundreds.
- One girl has started crying because she’s decided she’s simply too shy to answer the social welfare questions that will be posed to the contestants after the final parade (but not, apparently, too shy to parade around in a dress in front of 400 audience member…?)
- Of the five student performers who have agreed to dance and sing between parades only two of them have CDs that work in the radio station’s equipment
- Two teachers have arrived to help with the show but I get call after call from the others expressing their regrets.
- Each time the student MC announces a parade the girls shriek from the dressing room and complain that they need more time (this is due, in large part, to the one mother who’s managed to sneak into the back and is giving meticulous attention to the task of sticking feathers and beads into her daughters hair)
- Oh, and I’m sick. Sicker than I’ve been in years. Sore throat and fever and chills. I’m popping cough drops and pain killers and stomping out all these fires and kicking myself a million times for agreeing to this.

Still, we survive. The contest runs from 2:00 – 6:00. The feather-girl wins and the smallest contestant comes in second and the girl with a learning disability comes in third. My friend from Gabs (my favorite taxi driver) rescues us by arriving in MC-Hammer garb and lip synching to songs between parades. The radio station finds a guest speaker to present about drug and alcohol abuse. The girls all manage to answer the health questions at the end of the show. We raise 600 pula.

This event took place back in June but I was so sincerely traumatized by the accompanying mayhem that I’ve been hesitant to write about it. Since then I’ve sworn off helping to organize big events and to ever attend another beauty contest in my life.

But then yesterday we had our last PACT meeting of the term and I brought in photos from the contest. The kids circled me, squealing and shrieking and laughing at the images.

“You are so beautiful in this one!”
“See, in this one she looks like an princess!”
“Oh her body is so nice—So Nice!”
“Those shoes matched the dress perfectly!”
“Your answer there was great… see how you’re moving your hands!”
“Ah—that one… that one is just lovely!”

And so I go the Half-Full route and decide that, despite my attachment to perfection, the day was not a complete wash.

For one, the contestants felt pretty-- that in itself is an achievement for a teenage girl. And they did get practice thinking through questions like “Why did you join PACT?” and “How can you help to improve the health of your community?” and “What is the biggest challenge to Botswana’s social welfare?” Plus, we raised money and the kids who weren’t competing got experience with leadership and event-planning.

“Mma Charles! Next term we should do a Beauty Contest with girls AND boys!”

She flashes me a giant smile and runs her fingers through my hair and says


Oh, and they also learned how to be desperately charming and dangerous convincing. I’ve recorded it all here in case I’m tempted to succumb again.

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