My first encounter with Patricia Akello was in November, last year, on a Friday, at Spear Motors Nakawa in Kampala, Uganda. I was part of a group of girls who had gone to do fittings for an upcoming fashion show.
I remember a very tall, dark-skinned girl who walked in wearing a stripped coloured T-shirt over a pair of blue skinny jeans, sneakers and a cross bag over her shoulders. You could not miss Akello’s commanding presence and powerful walk.
About a week ago, I got in touch with her wanting to meet and talk face to face for an interview, but it was practically impossible.
She is in South Africa while I’m here in Uganda. So, we had to do the interview online at about 6pm, which is 5pm South African time, on a Tuesday. I ask the first question. Who is Patricia Akello?
Akello, an Acholi from Lukee clan in Pader District, was born 22 years ago in Nsambya Hospital, Kampala, to the now both deceased Santa and Patrick To-kema.
When her father passed on in 1994, Akello recalls how her mother worked hard to see that her seven children attained formal education. “I do not remember much about my dad but I remember my mother being very prayerful and working hard to see all of us through school,” she says.
She adds, “When she also died in 2010, my older sister who was working as a nurse helped foot the home bills from then onwards. There were times when things got tough for us, we had to seek help from friends and relatives.”
Where it all started
Her fondest memory as a child, she says was when her mother and siblings praised her pretend runway walk. “They would tell me to walk for them as they sang ‘model, model’ and I believe that to have sown the first seeds of interest in modelling for me,” she recounts.
Her debut in modelling
Akello, who attended ABC Nursery and Primary School, Gayaza, and Comprehensive College Kitetika in Wakiso District, says her journey into modelling started right after high school in 2011 when she set out to look for a modelling agency. “It was not easy as I expected. I tried most agencies around but they all put me on a waiting list,” she recounts.
Early last year, she met Stacie Aamito Lagum who had just flown back into the country after winning the title of Africa’s Next Top model. “During a chat with her, she told me about her upcoming welcome party and asked whether I would be interested in joining the night’s models.
She said she would consult with Joram Job Muzira, Aamito’s then manager, about booking me in with the other girls,” she says. Lady luck smiled twice.
Muzira booked Akello for the show as well as signed her up as one of his models under his Joram Model Management agency. She began booking gig after gig including last year’s Kampala Fashion Week where she showcased outfits for some renowned designers including Gloria Wavamunno and Sylvia Owori.
“It was after this particular fashion show that Muzira told me that a certain international model scout called Pearl had liked me and wanted to sign me up with Fusion Models, a South African-based modelling agency,” she says. “I remember going blank for a moment before excitedly shouting ‘yes’.”
And just like that, Akello was a month after that encounter flown out of the country on a three-year modelling contract with the agency.
“My three-year modelling contract prohibits me from having direct contact with any clients,” she explains. She does not have a particular schedule as she is called any time for either castings or bookings.
Akello says everything is moving on well save for missing people back home. “I miss my family and friends and will make time to come back and visit,” she says.
Comparing Uganda and South Africa
Akello stays in a model house provided by the agency, where basics such as food and transport are all taken care of.
Modelling in South Africa is like any other job and everything is done at a professional level, from castings to the production of shows and shoots, whereas in Uganda is it largely pursued as a hobby that does not pay much.
Regarding payment, Akello says she works for at least $100 (about Shs290,000) per gig. When she was still here, she says the most she usually expected to be paid for gigs was about Shs150,000, although there were designers who paid her more.
“Money has never been enough. But at least what I am getting here can pay bills beyond transport costs,” she says.
The 22-year-old says what she loves most about her career are the opportunities it offers, including travel and meeting different people.
Her dream is to grow to supermodel status where she hopes to be able to give back to the fashion industry by helping out aspiring models.
One-on-one with Patricia Akello
Are you done with school?
Not yet. By the time I left the country I was studying a two year diploma course in travel and tourism management at Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Wandegeya. I put it on a halt when this opportunity came. I will resume when I get back.
Do you suffer any misconceptions because of your career as a model?
People think I starve to maintain my body size, which is not the case with me. I am not even on any specific diet. I am naturally slender.
Are you in a relationship?
Yes, I am in a relationship and would not want to indulge into further details.
You can at least tell us whether he is Ugandan or not? Fellow model or not?
All I can tell you is that I am in a relationship. I cannot give any more details.
Any people who inspire you in the fashion and modelling industry?
Something funny about me is that I do not have anyone specific that I look up to. I admire anyone who works hard to get where they want to get, regardless of their profession. Probably what I would add is that I love how Alek Wek (renowned international model from South Sudan) has been persistent in the industry.
Any advice to upcoming models?
Never give up. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. And learn to trust God.
Any challenges so far?
Finding my way around is still a problem. Most times, I have to rely on the map on my phone, asking people on the street and cab drivers.
It has also been hard securing a working permit. I haven’t yet gotten one myself. I have a working visa, which gives me permission to do specific jobs for a limited period of time, so I am not affected.
Other Ugandan models working abroad
•Stacey Aamito Lagum based in New York
•Patricia Namayirira based in Cape town, South Africa
•Munirah Namakula, based in Cape town, South Africa
•Lucy Suubi based in Canada