Samantha Nassolo moved to Lira town in October 2015 to manage Club Angels Royale. She had just finished a Bachelor of Tours and Travels at Makerere University Business School, Nakawa and had three years of experience having worked in two mid-level restaurants in Kampala since her first year.
On arrival at her new managerial job in Lira, the first thing she noticed about the new town was that the night club was always full of young girls. As a young woman herself, she was familiar with going out to nightclubs but something was off here. Every night as she went about her business, she would watch them arrive at the nightclub as early as 9pm and they would dance and drink till the wee hours of the morning. It did not come as a surprise when she later learnt that they were all unemployed school dropouts. Some were younger than 18 from what she gathered. Nassolo felt a need to help.
One thing had been clear from the start: the striking beauty of Langi girls. They were tall, dark and shapely. Their skins were immaculate and their teeth white. Nassolo had always taken part in beauty pageants in school and she had witnessed firsthand how this always lifted people’s self-esteem. She hoped to interest some of them in a beauty contest and indeed when she talked to some of these girls, almost all of them were excited about it.
Off to a running start
Nassolo went to work. She sent a proposal to 20 companies and not too long after that, Pepsi, Riham and Movit came through with different offers. The first Miss Lira Pageant was held in February of 2016 at the club she managed.
“Fifteen girls applied to take part in the first Miss Lira competition but only nine would go on to boot camp because six of the girls were below the age of 18,” Nassolo says. “I could have let them compete but since the event would be held in the discotheque at night, I decided to let them go. I did not want to contribute to a problem I was trying to solve.”
Samantha says that on the night of the first Miss Lira pageant, the club which is designed to host about 600 revellers comfortably was now crowded with about 2000. “The event was slated to start at 10pm but by 9.30pm, the crowds were overflowing and we had to close the gates,” says Nassolo.
This overwhelming support spurred Nassolo on to start preparing for the 2017 competition but what really touched her heart was the transformation that the competition had brought upon the young women. She says that their confidence had been boosted so much that most of the girls used their newfound confidence to find jobs while others were head-hunted for employment. Now that they were in the limelight, they all wanted to stay away from bad behaviour for fear of being the laughing stock of the town.
Nassolo says, “One of the girls from the 2016 competition, Phiona Ejang was head-hunted by three companies. A big Hotel in Lira wanted her for a front desk job while a cosmetic company wanted her to drive their marketing campaigns but she chose a third option. She had always wanted to work on radio but prior to the competition, no station had believed in her. Today she works at one of the biggest radio stations in Gulu.”
“From our 2017 lot, there was one girl called Shakira Among. She had never been in any beauty competition, was shy and lacked confidence when she entered our boot camp but by the end of the competition, she had decided she wanted to be a model. Her confidence was boosted so much that she competed in Miss Tourism Northern Uganda 2017 and was crowned Face of Lango Heritage,” Nassolo says.
These stories of transformation have pulled more girls into the competition. The number of competitors jumped from nine in 2016 to 17 in 2017, and according to Nassolo, this was due to several girls hoping to use the competition as a launch pad that, among other reasons, would lift them into bigger beauty pageants like Miss Uganda and Miss Tourism.
Ironically, when the fame of the competition exploded in 2017, something undesirable was set in motion. So many people started looking at the pageant with apprehension; it was perceived by many as a portal through which bad behaviour was coming to the society.
“While we received 22 competitors for the 2018 pageants, more than half of them were pulled out by their families for fear of what the exposure might do to their children. Having remained with just 10 competitors to the end of boot camp, four of them who were from the same family allegedly got involved in a motor accident a few days to the competition, so they also pulled out,” Nassolo says.
Whether the accident actually happened or if it is just an excuse to cover the fact that the family forbade the girls from participating could not be ascertained. However, Nassolo believes that after a planned sensitisation, the families in Lira will see the competition in its true light.
She believes that Lira and Northern Uganda in general has the potential to take over the world of modelling globally. She says that these girls have the body structure that the international fashion industry is interested in and their skins and complexions are particularly awe-inspiring.
Icons from the north
Indeed a big number of international models from Uganda are from the region. Aamito Lagum took the fashion world by storm when she won Africa’s Next Top Model 2012 and went ahead to work for brands like Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs, Lacoste, and so on. She has been featured in top global fashion magazines like British Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Another big name from the north is Patricia Akello who is signed to Fusion Models in South Africa and has in the recent past headlined the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and has been featured in magazines like Glamour, Marie Claire, and many more.