The Miss Kenya Swiss Pageant: Interview with Winnie Ojanga
Kenyan beauty and culture in Switzerland.
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First published: March 31, 2006
On Saturday the 26th of November 2005 the Kenya Swiss Society held its annual Gala Dinner and Dance at the old Zurich Stock Exchange - undoubtedly one of Switzerland's architectural masterpieces. It was at this same event that the inaugural Miss Kenya Swiss 2005 Beauty pageant took place. Each contestant had the chance to make history at this unique pageant's debut.
The beauty pageant and Gala were a much anticipated event for the Kenyan community in Switzerland and its supporters. 300 invitations were sent out; 700 people turned up; 500 people were allowed entry; 200 denied entry due to limitation of hall capacity; all tickets sold out in 1.5 hours; 100 revelers stayed on until next day mid-day. That was the enthusiasm with which Kenyans in Switzerland and friends of Kenya attended the event.
On that day the illustrious winner of the 1st Miss Kenya Swiss Beauty pageant, the 18 year old Winnie Rhyner, was also crowned. As the crowned Miss Kenya Swiss Beauty Queen her work is to represent the Kenyan community in Switzerland as a spokes model during her reign, engaging in various activities to help unite Kenyans in Switzerland and promote Kenyan culture and awareness.
Winnie Ojanga with Winnie Rhyner-Miss Kenya Switzerland.
Judging from the photos, it was a night of pomp and glamour; a night of glitz, beauty, elegance, fine tastes, expensive jewllery, stunning evening gowns, colourful African fashions, designer suits and the best the Kenyan community had to offer. As an African woman, seeing that this is an African pageant, I would have loved to see more natural African hair represented in the pageant but I have to concede that the pageant was a success. I had the opportunity to interview both the organizer of the pageant Winne Ojanga and the pageant winner Winnie Rhyner. They are both beautiful, intelligent African women and had a lot to say.
Jane: First, I think what you are doing is a wonderful thing. There is still a lot of ignorance about Africa out there and it is great that you are striving to represent the continent well by displaying its beauty, intellect and talent.
Winnie Ojanga: Thank you for recognizing what we are doing.
Please tell us more about yourself.
I am married with two beautiful girls. Professionally, I have been in different fields ranging from IT to Accounting and Tourism Management. But what interests me most is doing things for and with people. It is this that makes working with the contestants of the Miss Kenya Swiss Pageant a lot more fun.
What would you say to those people who say that beauty pageants are demeaning to women?
Beauty pageants in their nature are never the same. The objectives and goals of the pageant organizers are never the same. What attracts contestants to the different beauty pageants are equally different reasons. In that respect, I think there could be one or the other pageant whose aims and goals may not be contributing positively to the image of women.
That said the Miss Kenya Swiss pageant is a beauty pageant with a purpose. Only females who are proud of their Kenyan origin and culture, and who will bring an essence of elegance to the Kenyan society in Switzerland and will show the society that they are the most-fitting candidate to represent the society in Switzerland and beyond are allowed to participate. The process of selection is very rigorous. The pageant's mission is to unite the Kenyan society in Switzerland, to create an international awareness of Kenyan issues, and to promote Kenyan tourism. Keeping in tune with the pageant's mission, the crowned Miss Kenya Swiss Beauty Queen works as a spokes model during her reign, engaging in various activities to help unite Kenyans in Switzerland and promote Kenyan culture and awareness. I think this is a position that should make anyone who holds it not only proud of herself but also her heritage.
Why did you come up with a Miss Kenya Switzerland pageant?
The Kenya Swiss Society, like most immigrant societies here, are to a greater extent, here to stay. It must therefore create its own heroes and role models. It is in this context that the winner of the Miss Kenya Swiss Pageant is to be seen. We are creating role models who the younger generations of Kenyans and people of Kenyan origin here in Switzerland can look up to.
Why limit it just to Kenyans?
First, the Miss Kenya Swiss beauty pageant is not limited to Kenyans but to people with Kenyan roots. We have people from different nationalities. The pre-condition however remains that at least one of your parents or grandparents or great grandparents must have come from Kenya. In fact our last competition had some girls with Ugandan citizenship but with part Kenyan parentage participating.
The tickets sold like hot cakes. You even had to turn people away because there were more people than tickets. What do you think made the pageant so popular?
In a nutshell, the Miss Kenya Swiss beauty pageant is unique in many ways:
- It is a platform in which the children of many generations of Kenyans in Switzerland come up to express themselves
- It is a "tool" and a technique to help the Kenyan society integrate in Switzerland
- It is a social platform in which Kenyans choose future role models
- It serves as a platform for self-realization for the young 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Kenyan descended females in Switzerland
- It serves as a "door-opener" for many of the Kenyan descended females that intend to pursue careers in the beauty, fashion and modeling industries.
The Miss Kenya Swiss Pageant is popular and liked because of many reasons. First, we do not charge any registration fees. You only need to have some links with Kenya, be between 17 and 27 years old, have some good understanding of the issues that affect the Kenyan society both in Kenya and the Diaspora, be willing to do some charity work and of course be beautiful and charismatic and you are in. Secondly, it is probably the best organized African beauty pageant outside of Africa (this is the feedback so farI am not blowing my own trumpet here). Third, the beauty pageant takes place alongside the annual Kenya Swiss Society Gala dinner and dance. Last but not least, the prizes to be won are very attractive.
I know that there is a lot of work in the background from finding sponsors, training the girls, to finding the location. What challenges did you come across when conceptualizing the pageant?
I did not face many challenges as the girls were very cooperative. We also had very helpful and resourceful volunteers throughout the planning phase.
How did you find the girls who participated?
Finding the contestants was not a very difficult task. We printed flyers and gave them out. Word also quickly spread around and the response was very positive. I guess it is the integrity of the organization behind an event that attracts most.
What do you hope to gain with hosting this pageant, aside from the financial benefits, of course?
Let me state at the onset that the motivation for organizing the pageant is not financial. We are happy when we break even. We sent back over 150 people last time eventually throwing at least USD 10,000 away because we preferred to have a decent and qualitative environment over money and this was when we weren't even sure we would reach anywhere near to recovering the monies invested. It is the goal and the mission of the pageant that is important to us. If any big money came out of the pageant, we would invest it into charity work in Kenya.
Kenya Swiss Society Gala guests.
Is there a big Kenyan community there?
The Kenya community in Switzerland is the largest African community in Switzerland. It is estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000.
That's quite a considerable size. Does the Kenyan community interact with the Ugandan Community?
The East African community in Switzerland is very close so much so that sometimes it is very difficult to tell whether one is Ugandan, Kenyan or Tanzanian; the reason being that East Africans have common social clubs and events and tend to always hang out together. The only East African restaurant and bar in Zurich is Ugandan and Kenyan owned. In this year's event, our guests are Tausi Likolola (a top TZ model) and music by Jose Chameleon (a top UG artist). Of course comedy will be from Kenya. In conclusion therefore, and with Chameleon performing at this year's event, Kenyans may just have to camp at the entrance a day before the event to secure a place otherwise Ugandans will fill-up the event and leave them out in the cold winter.
How did you choose your judges and where were they from?
In principal, members of the jury must not come from the Kenyan community. This is to avoid any post-pageant complaints especially those of favoritism. Also, the jury must not know in any way any of the participants. We had a jury of 3 persons comprising two Swiss and one Zimbabwean.
How aware are the Swiss of the African community there and what is happening?
There are lots of integration programs among the African society in Switzerland. The Swiss have also had long relationship with Africa especially in the areas of financial services, pharmaceuticals and trade. In all, I must also say the Swiss are quite informed and in fact the biggest African event in continental Europe takes place in Switzerland every May since 18 years.
You could have lived anywhere in the Diaspora. Why did you choose Switzerland?
It is natural that when a woman gets married, she moves and joins the husband, this is why I moved to Switzerland. Besides Switzerland is a very beautiful country to live in.
If you could throw in a few words to promote Kenya, what would those words be?
Kenya is a beautiful country which is rich in cultural, traditional and ancient history. It is also one of the well known tourist's destinations in East Africa.
As the president and organizer of the show, what message would you like to leave our readers with?
Beauty pageants are not only a door opener to the young females with career interest in modeling, fashion and beauty industries but also one of the platforms with which societies create their role models.
Thank you Winnie for the interview. Your answers were very informative.
It was my pleasure!
For more information on the pageant please go to website www.kenyaswiss.net (see Miss Kenya CH and Photo gallery sections).
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First published: March 31, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.