Four bare-chested men walked swiftly, their ropey arms twitching at every swing, delicately balancing the special cargo on their shoulders.
The cargo was a pretty young woman bearing a crown on the head and a blue sash that announced she was Miss Tourism, Kitui County.
This was Beatrice Nthenya Musyoka’s dramatic entry to the Kenyatta International Convention Centre a fortnight ago, when beauty queens from 42 counties arrived in Nairobi to prepare for the grand finale that kicks off today at the KICC.
Many models arrived in similarly captivating styles: Miss Tourism Siaya Clarice Okello came on a boat-shaped scooter, with tilapia dangling from the sides; Miss Marsabit (Darmi Jattani) arrived on camel back, as did Miss Laikipia (Elizabeth Wambui).
If the innovation and imagination employed in making those fashion statements was meant to stop everyone in their tracks, they succeeded in doing more than just that. Each cultural display made great commentary on our collective identity.
Why, for a country peopled by disparate communities in eternal fear of annihilation by the others, this was a rare moment of positive competition, while evoking salient societal questions.
Was Miss Kitui, for instance, seeking to subvert patriarchy by perching on the shoulders of her male escorts, much the same way Wangu wa Makeri literally sat on men throughout her rule in Gikuyuland in pre-colonial Kenya?
Beyond the politics of gender was the persistent question whether a woman strutting down the runway for all to admire somewhat belittles her intelligence by objectifying her beauty. Miss Tourism Kajiado, Sation Parmuat, 25, contested such assertions. Besides modelling, she has a degree in Business Information Technology and has a full-time job with a tech firm. As a matter of fact, she adds, her parents are supportive of her endeavours on the catwalk.
This change of heart, and the gradual acceptance of beauty pageants as a legitimate enterprise is in large part due to the efforts of local entrepreneurs such as Alice Kamunge, who runs the Miss Tourism Kenya franchise.
How the idea of Miss Tourism first dawned on her
From her seventh floor office at Transnational Plaza, Nairobi, overlooking the law courts, she chuckles at the recollection of how the idea of Miss Tourism first dawned on her.
The year was 2001 and she was in Greece attending a tourism workshop when tragedy struck. Dozens of schoolboys at Kyanguli School had been burnt in their dormitories in an arson attack.
The gory images, with the gleeful horror that European media like to reflect in their coverage of Africa, were flashing non-stop on television.
The black and white close-ups of the dead schoolboys were hauntingly surreal: “It’s as though they were rising from the dead,” Kamunge says of the grotesque images. “I denied that I was Kenyan,” Kamunge laughs. “I was too ashamed to be Kenyan.”
Out of the Greek tragedy, out of the shame of humiliation came the idea of how Kamunge could inspire beauty and celebration of life. At that time of the year, Greece was running regional beauty pageants before culminating on to the national stage. Something good, after all, would come out of Athens.
The philosophy encapsulated in Kamunge’s vision is quite simply, “to rally people together in celebration and appreciation of our tourism attractions and cultural diversity, while promoting investment opportunities and best environmental practices through the pageantry.”
Kamunge has a personal stake in the campaign: her own adventure safari business crumbled at the height of post-election violence of 1997 and she was left struggling to keep her head above water. She believed local tourism could succeed where international tourism had failed.
And one way of promoting local tourism was to make fellow Kenyans appreciate the beauty and splendour of their land through pageants. She has been vindicated many times over the past few years, as local tourism has become the mainstay of the sector.
The devolved county governments couldn’t have come at a better time; the counties are responsible for picking their own delegates under the patronage of the county First Ladies.
Now in its second year, with 42 counties participating – five, including Lamu and Mandera opted out, presumably due to religious considerations, Miss Tourism Kenya pageantry is definitely going places.
If the material culture that punctuated the display a fortnight ago was only the dress rehearsal, it is a safe bet that the show will be a lot more energised today as Miss Tourism Kenya is unveiled.