Teens represent African nations in annual Brooklyn Center beauty pageantby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
Brooklyn Center, Minn. — Several ethnic festivals took place around the Twin Cities this past weekend including Greek, Polish, Indian and Irish, but there was a different type of ethnic event in Brooklyn Center -- the 5th Annual Miss Teen Africa True Beauty Pageant.
Emmanuela Bonglack, 15, was one of nine contestants that competed in the pageant over the weekend. About 90 minutes before the pageant starts, she and the other girls practiced for the opening dance.
The girls are wearing matching black tank tops and black tights, with leopard print scarves tied around their waist for the first dance.
"All the contestants open up the dance and the pageant carries on from there," Bonglack explains.
The opening dance is a choreographed African dance they've been practicing for a month. It'll be followed by a usual pageant staple -- the girls will model evening gowns for the audience. There will also be casual wear and African wear categories.
Most of the girls emigrated to the U.S. with their parents from Africa just a few years ago. Each represents their country of origin in the pageant.
"The African wear and the casual I brought them from Cameroon when I was coming here, so I've had them for a while," Bonglack said.
Emmanuela also plans an African dance for the pageant's talent competition. It'll be followed by a question and answer segment.
That's the part that makes Zoey Johnson, 14, nervous. The questions will mostly be about HIV and AIDS -- part of the money from the $10 tickets to the pageant go to an AIDS relief organization working in Africa, where HIV has long been a growing problem.
The subject requires Zoey, who moved to Minnesota from Liberia, to say one awkward word a lot.
"At first I would kind of hesitate to say the word sex because I'm like a little kid and I would think it would be inappropriate for me to say," Johnson said. "But people kept saying it and saying it and saying it so I was like OK, and just came out with it."
The focus on HIV is what drew Cesarine Ntanga, 17, to the pageant.
"We're going to be educating our audience while entertaining them," Ntanga said.
Cesarine represents the Democratic Republic of Congo. She's never been a part of anything like a pageant before.
"A friend of mine - ex-boyfriend -- has been diagnosed with AIDS ... it was a shock to all of us," she said. "Because we always know about it but we never think oh it's not going to happen to anybody we know. Or it's not going to happen to us, but it can."
About thirty minutes before the pageant starts people are beginning to fill the small auditorium. The girls peek at them from backstage and were getting a bit jittery.
The pageant aims to empower young African women and build up their self-esteem. As Makda Meles explains, she and the other girls have a spent a lot of time feeling different.
"In class they cut my hair from the back when I was sitting," Meles said. "So I was like ... it's just when people are around you when you're different they don't like it and I want to prove them wrong. It's not even about being pretty or ugly."
Makda wants to be a doctor. She wants to go back to her small village in Ethiopia and build a hospital. She visited the country last summer after years away and was surprised when people recognized and greeted her. But she was shocked by the spread of AIDS.
"People are not aware of what's going on," she said. "They're just like -- nobody's giving them information. They don't think about that kind of stuff. They think they just get sick -- like they're causing it themselves -- like being uneducated. That's why I really want to do it."
The girls whispered as they lined up to go onstage. As the music starts, Zoey Johnson said she's already gotten a lot out of this experience. "I learned a lot," Johnson said. "I learned friendship, self confidence, believing in myself, appreciating those around me, appreciating myself."
They shuffle out between the dark heavy curtains onto the stage and take their positions in the dark as the music swells and the lights go up.
In the end, Makda Meles won the pageant for Ethiopia. She took home $500 and a new laptop.
- Morning Edition, 08/16/2010, 7:25 a.m.