The Miss Africa Sweden beauty pageant was launched with the intention of boosting the confidence of African girls in Sweden, and to give them new and positive role models. It was just like all those other pageants that pretends like it isn't all just about being a weird version of hot, except less sequins and more traditional African garb, music, and dancing. After the winner, Matilda, was chosen and most of the excitement had settled down, our good friend Marguerite did a photo shoot with all the contenders, and some of the girls also took time out of their busy schedules of studying, working, and being pretty to have a chat with us.
Vice: Congratulations on winning! Where are you from?
Matilda: I'm from Togo, in West Africa. I came to Sweden when I was 12.
Why did you move here?
My dad already lived here, with his new wife and my little sister. When my mum and dad got divorced, my mum couldn't take care of two kids on her own. She was an analphabetic, she couldn't write or read, and two kids would have been too much for her, you know? So my sister moved away with my dad. She was four years younger than me, so I suppose she was easier to bring along because she was so little.
Why did your dad move to Sweden?
I'm not really sure. He was into politics and I think that maybe he knew someone in Sweden that helped him move here. But he's never talked to me about why Sweden was the place he chose to live in. He really didn't have an easy time here at first. You know, when people move from Africa to Sweden, they have so many preconceptions: everything will be so easy here, they will easily get a job, get an apartment, the queen is going to have a parade for them at the airport, ha ha.
What was life like for you when your dad and sister had moved away?
I lived mostly with my grandmother, not so much with my mum. My grandmother is my biggest influence; she laid the foundation to the person I am today. She tried to make me go to school but they hit the children and I was way too unruly! My grandmother had taught me to stand up for myself. In Africa a girl becomes a woman early on. You learn to cook and braid hair and stuff like that. I also learned those things, but my grandmother allowed me to do boy stuff too. Play and fight with the boys and climb the trees. The other women in the village didn't like that.
What about the teachers?
They didn't like it either! In school you have to sit quietly by your desk and listen to the teachers. I couldn't do that. I think I went to school once, not more than that. My grandmother said that I didn't have to go there if I didn't want to, but she also told me to think about my future.
Can you describe the place where you grew up?
There were several small villages placed here and there, a bit away from one another. My grandmother, her relatives, and I lived in one village. In difficult times, maybe when there was a draught, when the food was sparse, I was sent away to other villages. I would live with my father's relatives in their village for a while, if they had food. As a kid you want to live with your parents. I didn't know that my father lived with a new woman, all I knew was that he was in Europe. And as I mostly lived with my grandmother, I could get really angry with her, blaming her for not letting me live with my mum and dad. Of course when I got older, I realized that there was nothing she could do about it.
Tell me more about your grandmother.
She always spoke her mind. She and my grandfather always argued. And when they fought, it could get really nasty! When my grandfather had been out on the fields or something, he demanded that the dinner should be ready. That could start a fight, because my grandmother didn't take crap from anyone!
And she allowed me to be mouthy with adults too, that was really unusual. She could be sitting with her friends, talking, and I just jumped into the conversation, started talking, and the friends were all, "Can't you make her shut her mouth?" But she just said, “No, let her be.”
What was it like to move to Sweden?
It all happened so quickly. I was ill at the time, I think I had the yellow fever or something like that. When we were on the plane I started getting better, but I wasn't really there. I was like, “Oh, we're going somewhere, OK.” I didn't have the strength to find out what was really going on. I never got the chance to say goodbye to mum either.
It was my grandfather who picked me up when we were going to leave. He told me that I was going to Europe, but first we were going to buy some clothes. My mum had to go to the village, but I thought that we would meet up with her later. Instead, my grandfather brought me to my step-mum and then we went to Sweden.
What happened when you came to Sweden?
My dad picked me up at the airport. I hardly recognized him! He had used some bleaching product on his skin so he had a much lighter skin tone. It's very common amongst people with darker skin, because they want to get a job easier and blend in more. It's horrible. My sister, who was about eight, was with him and she had changed so much. I hadn't seen her in so long, so she really looked different, but I recognized her because of her forehead. I started whispering into my sister's ear that I had missed her, that my mum had missed her, but she didn't understand what I said. She was so young when she moved away from Africa that she didn't remember any of her old life. I think my dad and my step-mum wanted her to forget about Africa too, because it was easier that way. Now she had her mum here, our step-mum, and it took a while before she started to believe me when I talked to her about her mum in Africa and our life there.
Did you miss Africa?
Yes, I missed my grandmother and my mum. I couldn't contact them, and all of a sudden I was going to live here, and go to school and everything. There was no one to talk to about it, either. When I talked about Africa at home or with my sister, my dad got mad. So I wasn't feeling too good. School was hard, there were a lot of fights amongst the kids because everyone spoke a different language and we couldn't communicate with each other very well. What helped me through the early times was what my grandma had taught me. I stood up for myself. If I got mad I’d let people know, and if any of the guys were mean to me I’d hit them. Now when I meet my old teachers they tell me that it was good that I was such a troublemaker, because that made them realize that I wasn't happy. But back then they only made me more frustrated. They tried to calm me down, but all my life my grandmother had let me fight and make trouble, so I didn't know what to do. Then I noticed that the teachers here didn’t beat the children, and I started to like school more and more. I wanted to learn about everything, and asked everyone I met a lot of questions whenever there was something I wanted to know. I suppose I was pretty annoying, but I just wanted to learn.
Where were you born?
I'm from Mozambique. I was adopted when I was little, and me and my adoptive parents moved to Sweden when I was five.
Do you have any memories from Mozambique?
Not that many. Mostly really weird ones. We lived by the seaside, and I never wanted to swim in the sea because I was so afraid of the small crabs. I regret it now, you know, when I have to pay a lot to go to the seaside.
Did you have a lot of friends in Mozambique?
Yeah, lots. We practically lived at the Swedish embassy, because my mum and dad are from Sweden and work with charity. So the kids I got to know and played with there were from all over the world.
Are you still friends with any of them?
We meet once every year or so, but that's about it I think. It's more like our mums keep in touch and talk to each other. Except for one of my friends, Simon. We are still really close, almost like siblings. We lived pretty close to each other in Mozambique, and my nanny used to take me to him to play.
How did you feel about moving to Sweden?
I had been going on vacations to Sweden every year with my mum and dad, so I just though that it was an extra long vacation. I didn't really understand that we were moving here. Also, we moved in the wintertime, and I wasn't used to the cold. I never wanted to get dressed as warm as my mum wanted me too, so there were many fights in the hallway about which clothes to put on.
Were there any other differences between your old and new hometown?
Yeah, a lot of differences. When I went to pre-school here I saw a huge difference in the way the kids acted. They were all so greedy and fought a lot, while I tried to make peace and make everyone to get along with each other. My mum had to explain to me that we are in a different place now and that people are different here. I think that there was much more friendliness and comradery in Mozambique.
How come you and your family moved?
My mum and dad wanted me to get a good education. I guess you could get that in Mozambique too, but it's different.
I think that you set your goals higher there. If you get the opportunity to get an education, you aim for big positions, to become a lawyer or something. I think that my parents wanted me to have more choices, and you can get that here.
You sound like a pageant contestent! Do you have a dream job?
Yeah, I'm studying to be a music producer, and I also want to be a DJ. I've always loved being onstage.
When did you realize that?
I think it was when I was younger and was in a theater group. That was when my interest started to grow. And then I started to do a bit of freelance modeling after I got a job as a model when I was 14.
So were you, like, the prettiest kid in your hometown?
Ha ha, I don't know. No one told me about it if I was. I did get comments on being beautiful as a child, but I guess all kids do.
Where do you come from?
I’m from Uganda. Or, well, originally I'm from Kenya. When I was three we moved to Uganda, and then when I was ten we moved to Sweden. My dad was from Uganda, so I think that's why we moved there, because he has a lot of family there.
Do you have any memories from Kenya?
Yeah, lots! Mostly it's because I went to pre-school there, and because we've been there on visits. Four years ago me and my family went there, and we were travelling in a taxi. They have huge taxis there, with tons of people in them, not at all like the ones here. Anyway, I stepped out of the taxi, and then when my sister was going to step out, the taxi ran over her foot. And then they just drove away!
She was hurt, but she was in shock so she couldn't feel anything. Her foot was very swollen the day after.
What do you do during your visits?
We visit relatives. We just try to live an everyday life. It's not like when people go to vacations there and live in fancy hotels or anything, we don't want to do that. We do go to shops and amusement parks and things like that. That's nice, but we also just do everyday things like cooking meals and washing clothes. It's nice to get to live your life back there sometimes too, instead of only living here in Sweden all the time.
Is life there any different from life here?
Yeah, it is. It's much more open in Uganda and Kenya. If you, for example, want to go to a friend there, you just do it, you know? Here if you want to do something it needs planning. There are much more boundaries to what you can and can not do here. Back there people can talk really loud if they want to, and if you want to sing you can just start singing! You can be freer in a way.
Why do you think that is?
Hmm, I don't know! I think you judge people more here. There are so many unwritten rules, you know, things that people just can't do, without there being any reason not to. You can't just call out across the street to someone you know here. People are much more timid and quiet, you don't want to stand out and get noticed.
Are the boys in Uganda different from the boys in Sweden?
Ha ha, maybe! All guys are different really, but the majority in Uganda are more, "Hey, how ya doing, la la la." You know? When guys have tried to pick me up and stuff, they've been like that, more open. Here it's more about flirting with the eyes, more discreet. But everyone's different.
What else do you do on your visits to Africa?
If we stay at my dad's mum’s in Uganda there might be a welcoming party. Relatives come over to welcome us, and there is lots of food.
How are the parties in Uganda compared to the ones here?
You mean family parties or if you go out, clubbing?
Family parties are pretty much the same as here. But if you go out to party, like out to a club, there are differences. People don't drink as much when they go out there as they do here. In Uganda people dance more. And it's not like in Sweden when sometimes the girls can dance real vulgar, you know? In Uganda people also like to dance and shake their booty, but it's a whole different thing. I haven't been able to go out partying yet because I've been too young. But this summer we'll go there again… and then...
What are you doing now, in Sweden?
I study nursing care at high school. I was actually going to study science, but when I got in to that class, I didn't feel like it for some reason. I don't really know why. But I can study to be whatever I want to be in this class too, it will just take a little bit longer with the further studies and all.
What is it that you want to work with?
I want to become a surgeon. First I wanted to become a pediatrician, but then I saw this TV show on the Discovery channel, like a documentary show from a hospital. They did a lot of surgery there, and I became interested in that. Also, I love Grey’s Anatomy, so I guess that's an influence too, ha ha. I think it would be more fun to be a surgeon than just an ordinary doctor. I like challenges, and I want to work with something complicated, like brain surgery.
Won't it be gross to work with people’s brains and stuff?
Hmm, no, I don't think so. I guess it won't be so much fun if the patient you're trying to help dies or something, but otherwise, I have no problem with it. As a surgeon, you will be the one in control, everything is up to you. You are the one who will have to do it! And also, you make a lot of money as a surgeon, that's nice!
What do you think your life will look like in ten years?
I hope I'll be working. And that I'll be done with my studies. Maybe I'll be married… or yeah, I hope I'll be married by then, and that I will have a bit of money. I don't want any kids that early though. Maybe I'll live in another country. I like moving around, not staying in the same place all the time. I'd like to go to Jamaica, or maybe go back to Uganda, that'd be nice. Or Australia! Yeah, I'd like to live in Australia.
It's a country that you don't know so much about. It'd be nice, to go there and just see what it's like. I like to just do things when I feel like it, and not have too many plans, just see what happens.
When did you arrive in Sweden?
I came here from Eritrea five years ago. Now I’ve got two kids and I’m studying and working.
What are you studying?
I’m doing double degrees, I’m studying to become an economy assistant, and I’m also becoming an IT technician.
And I work as a teacher on the side.
I’m in awe. How come you left, Eritrea?
When we were living there, my mum won a green card. The whole family, all my siblings were included in the green card, everyone except me, since I was over 18. So I was left behind when everyone else moved to the US.
What did you do?
There was a war, so I became a soldier. It’s very hard and you have almost no time off. I had ten days off on the whole year. During Christmas I was on my yearly break, and because I didn’t have any family I decided to go out and party instead. It was just me and our servant, and we went to this disco. I got a little bit drunk and then I met this really cute guy. We started talking and he asked me to come back to his place. Of course I said no. Afterwards I went to my friend and I said, “I have to see that guy again!” I was a bit dizzy, and for a while I worried he was white!
So did you meet him again?
Yes! I saw him the next day, he was so cute, and then we saw each other every day of my ten-day vacation. When my vacation was over I did something really dangerous and I told my superiors I was sick and had to have some more time off. They bought it, and only days later we decided to get married. Three months after that I was pregnant with our first kid, and I said “Buh-bye!” to the army in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
Have your family met your husband?
Oh yes, and he’s so sweet, so nice. We had a Catholic wedding with some 200 guests.
Wow, that’s pretty major.
No no, that’s nothing, upwards of 1,000 guests is not uncommon. My husband paid for the whole thing, everything. We moved to Sweden together, we’ve been married for seven years now. I’m still head over heels in love with him.
That means you were…20 when all this happened. Crazy stuff. So how come you entered into this pageant?
I saw a poster around town about it, so I enrolled. I’m 27 years old, I’ve got two kids, I have to do something! It’s now or never! I would never let anyone tell me I was too old. So I got called to do an interview, and I passed it, and I was called to do another and then I was a finalist.
And then you got a third prize, congratulations!
It was so much fun being up on that stage. The only thing I don’t feel good about right now is I was supposed to do my hair yesterday, but I helped one of the other girls instead.
Don’t worry, you look great!
SANDRA SVENSSON and ELIN UNNES
Photos by Marguerite Seger
(Makeup by Nina Belkhir)