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The City Journals

Miss Africa Utah pageant: A diverse cultural scholarship program

Sep 21, 2020 04:59PM ● By Heather Lawrence

African Queens: Pauline Makoma (center, back) is crowned Miss Africa Utah 2020; other winners are L to R: Amira Kherrallah, Aziza Jabhad Hussein and Perpetual Stevens. (Lisa Chriss Photography)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

The 10th annual Miss Africa Utah pageant was Aug. 11-15. The pageant is for single Utah women with ties to Africa. The result is an event like no other where African women feel supported as they educate others and celebrate their heritage.  

The pageant was created by Gloria Mensah of GK Folks Foundation. Mensah was born in Nigeria and resides in Utah. “It started as a culture night, just to learn more about different African cultures. It was so successful that I decided to make a nonprofit and create a scholarship,” Mensah said. 

This year’s pageant went online due to the pandemic, so events were shown on the website, www.missafricautah.org. Like other pageants, each contestant chose a platform or social issue to promote. There was a talent segment and judges who select the queen. But unlike other pageants, there was a traditional costume segment and a parade of nations.  

“There is a lot of diversity. It doesn’t matter your size or shape or height—you have to be within three generations from Africa. Some of the women are adopted, some are single moms and many are in college or have already graduated,” Mensah said. 

This year’s final contest involved women from eight African nations: Anna Elizabeth Robbins of Cameroon; Amira Kherrallah of Central African Republic; Perpetual Stevens of Ghana; Aziza Jabhad Hussein of Kenya; Nini Ndongo Macias of Ecuatorial Guinea; Easter Shadrack of North Sudan (born in Ethiopia); Pauline Makoma of Rwanda and Seary Kallon of Sierra Leone.

The women come from across the valley—Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, West Jordan, Draper and Kearns. The theme of belonging and fitting in came up for several as they introduced themselves and their platforms. 

“People said I wasn’t African enough, or I wasn’t Latina enough,” said Nini Ndongo Macias, Miss Ecuatorial Guinea. Macias was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and code-switches easily between English and Spanish. Ecuatorial Guinea is the only official Spanish-speaking African nation. 

Aziza Jabhad Hussein, Miss Kenya Utah, said she didn’t fit in “because I couldn’t walk until age 5.” Hussein was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and lost friends because they didn’t understand what that meant. 

“It taught me that sometimes we judge people too quickly. Our differences seem more like weaknesses, instead of them making us more rounded and interesting individuals for our communities. I’ve made it my mission to get to know people on a deeper level,” Hussein said. 

Perpetual Stevens won the People’s Choice Award through online voting. “I lived in an orphanage until I was 7, and then I was adopted and moved to America,” Stevens said. 

Stevens chose the Kaeme Foundation as her platform, which supports families in Ghana so they can keep their children at home instead of having to utilize orphanages. 

“Kaeme is very personal and important to me. I want to share my story of living in an orphanage, show people that they can trust me and my platform, and educate and help people better understand what Kaeme does,” Stevens said. 

Stevens said that though the African community in Utah may be small, “we are powerful, loving and resilient. We have continuously shown that we are here to stay. We will forever stand up and speak out about our dreams, rights and beliefs.”

The events were broadcast each night leading up to the finale on Aug. 15. The second runner-up was Hussein, the first runner-up was Amira Kherrallah and the winner was Pauline Makoma. 

Makoma is a web developer studying software engineering. “I plan to visit high schools during my reign and talk about my platform: helping young African women explore career fields that are not looked at as ‘traditional.’ African women still struggle to see themselves in technology and STEM [fields],” Makoma said. 

Brittany Johnson, a news presenter at ABC4, hosted the event. Johnson said the virtual edition speaks to the importance of the event. "The GK Folks Foundation could have canceled due to the pandemic, but instead they found a way to adapt by making the event virtual. 

“The pageant allows contestants to feel empowered, showcase their talent and create a platform in which a young African woman can thrive. The MAU Pageant promotes positivity, and that's what the world needs more of today," Johnson said. 

Makoma said when she moved to Utah three years ago, she was surprised by the size of the African community. “You can search for African events that are happening near you and try to attend those. You will learn so much about the culture, get the most amazing food and the music there is always the best,” Makoma said. 

The virtual aspect of this year’s contest meant there were no tickets sales, which brings in a lot of support for the program.  

“We’re taking a lot of losses this year because we don’t have a live event we can sell tickets for. There is so much these young women learn in the pageant, and since we’re a nonprofit, all donations go toward helping them,” Mensah said. 

GK Folks coordinates events to support the community. “There is so much for people to process with their mental health. We did a march for George Floyd where the girls wore their crowns and sashes. We want Black people to be seen as people, not a threat.

“Our mental health programs give people a safe space to come and talk. It really worked. People were pouring out their feelings,” Mensah said.  

To support the scholarships awarded by the pageant or learn more about the young women and their platforms, visit their website. And Mensah hopes that more sponsors will step up and people in the community will donate to the causes. 

Makoma offers this invitation of inclusion to everyone: “I want you to join in creating and finding opportunities for young African women to…be [who] they were meant to be, here in Utah, in Africa and all over the world.”

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