Monday, June 18, 2012

African Beauty Pageant

Friday, March 30, 2012


After such an emotional day, we decided it best to take our new friend, Jacob, up on his offer to escort us to a “beauty contest” at the local community center. Intrigued by what an African beauty contest would consist of, we were rather excited at both the opportunity to get away from the hospital and to join in on a local social function. Jacob picked us up and we walked to town through the darkness of the night.

I could tell instantly that tonight was a special occasion. We could hear the music at the edge of the hospital campus. As we got closer I could see that there were people everywhere outside the community center.  Already I was confused about exactly what type of “beauty contest” this would be. We paid the small entry fee and enter through the front door…

There are people EVERYWHERE- crammed wall to wall- literally on top of one of another. Guys are holding girls on their shoulders and backs; people are standing on benches and chairs; small children are weaving in between people’s legs- all trying to shove as close to the front of the stage as possible. We try to push in and sneak a view, but the crowd is too dense. The wall of people will not budge.

It’s hot everywhere in Sierra Leone, but when you pack the entire village of Kamakwie into one windowless concrete building, even on a cool night, the heat becomes unbearable. The smells were so strong as people crammed in so tight, dripping with sweat.

We slid past a few people and Jacob leads us to the front. My body is being pushed and shoved in every direction possible. I’m stepped on and tossed around like a rag doll. I’m being squeezed so tightly in the crowd that at times I can’t even see the other white people in front of and behind me. I don’t think Las Vegas was even this crowded on New Year’s Eve!

Finally we reach the stage. Jacob passes a bench over the top of the crowd to a man on stage and they pull us up onto the stage. I was very hesitant, not wanting to draw any more attention to myself than my white skin already had. They insist until finally we are all on stage.  There is a guy dancing in the center and I begin to realize that we are now sitting with the judges at the edge of the stage. 

I look around the dimly lit building at the crowd around us. Finally I feel like I can breathe again (somewhat)... But only minimally- the stage is high and all of the generator-powered lights are centered around us. The air is so thick and hot that I can barely inhale. I can feel the weight of the humid air lying heavy on my chest and the pressure is beginning to get to me.

The guy continues to dance, mimicking Michael Jackson’s signature moves across the stage. I look out at the crowd and realize it is now a solid wall of people- there is no way out. The song ends and the dancer stops. People toss money onto the stage in support of his dance moves, but as he exits the stage they become unruly. People are getting trampled. There are several “security guards” in fort of the stage and as I look down, they are hitting people, punching and shoving to try to contain the crowd. A small boy has made it to the front and I notice as people begin to push backwards to avoid the guards that he becomes engulfed in the mass of people. All I can see are the extremities of people flailing around behind one another.

I look behind us at the stairs we climbed to enter the stage. They are covered with spectators. One guy tries to get down and punches are thrown. A small fight breaks out, but quickly the boys are separated and everyone calms down. I realize that we have no way to exit except down those same stairs. My heart begins to pound a little faster.

A new dancer has begun. She has on a short ruffled skirt. As she begins to dance she throws around the ruffles of her short skirt and the crowd becomes even more excited. I will not argue her talents, but I quickly realize that this is not the type of beauty pageant that any of us thought we would be attending. As the comfort level rapidly declined with the addition of this new dancer, we all decided that we desperately needed to make a get away before things got even more out of control.

With a nod of agreement we all begin our descent back into the crowd. Slowly but surely we push our way through, manipulating our bodies and stretching our extremities until finally we reach the other side. Already the air seems so much cooler. We hang out in the back of the crowd for a few minutes before deciding to go back outside. The night air never felt so good on my warm skin.

We laughed and carried on with our friends outside the community center. They made fun of us for needing bug spray as we questioned them intensely on the events of the pageant. We soon decide to leave the community center and begin our walk back through the town to the hospital. The walk was long, the night dark but the conversation light.

It was a good ending to a bad day and we made friends that we will remember forever.

Before falling to sleep, I thank God for finally allowing this day to end.

The girls with Jacob and Samuel
Phillip with the boys
A great group


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