Just like every single one of the four million people who were forced to leave their families, cattle, and burning villages behind, she walked for hundreds of miles into the great unknown after the outbreak of civil war in Sudan in 1985, not aware if she would ever return to the place she had always called home. Several years after escaping hunger and death, Alek Wek and a few relatives managed to secure refugee status to Britain where she worked several odd jobs, put herself through school and raised enough money to send back to her mother in South Sudan. By stroke of luck, she was discovered in a London market by a model scout in 1995 and her life was changed forever.
These days, when she walks the runway for Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Moschino, Victoria’s Secret, John Galiano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and other top design agencies; when she appears on the cover of Elle, Vogue, Ebony and Cosmopolitan magazines or when she is named ‘Model of the Decade’ by i-D, few people remember that before her, it was fairly unthinkable for a tall, skinny, leggy refugee with pitch black skin and cropped hair to be considered beautiful enough for the fashion world. Alek Wek changed the face of fashion and modeling forever, and she’s African.
Before Alek, Iman Abdulmajid and Waris Dirie from Somalia were the sole shining lights for the Dark Continent in the global fashion world. However, it is safe to assume that Alek opened the floodgates for other African models like Liya Kebede, Yasmin Warsame and Ajak Deng so much that the entire conception of a beautiful model has now almost completely been redefined to an image of a tall, leggy African woman whose face glows as the mid-day sun. With the entry of Nigeria’s Oluchi Onweagba into the catwalking business as winner of the M-Net ‘Face of Africa’ contest in 1998 and Agbani Darego’s triumph as the first black African Miss World in 2001, young African ladies ensured that the 21st century conception of an African woman was radically different from what it had been from the beginning of the human race. Besides the runway, Africa has again scored a huge victory for the fashion world with the mass commercialization of ‘Madiba’ shirts in the USA, celebrating the beautiful fabrics that Africa’s golden son, Nelson Mandela has popularized over time.
Going back in time, to an era when African-Americans were fighting the biggest struggle of their lives in the early 1960s, one voice was making its way quietly from Johannesburg to the White House. Miriam Makeba, ‘Mama Africa’, became the face and voice of all South Africans and Africans by extension with her soulful jazz music and active campaign against apartheid in her country. Having gained popularity in South Africa with her hit single ‘pata pata’, she made history by becoming the first musical artiste to popularize African music in the US. No one expected a black person, not at least an African to have appeared on the Steve Allen Show in 1959, to sing at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party in 1962 or to have won a Grammy in 1966. These were all record feats for any black person, but Mama Africa was not done yet; she ensured that in spite of her fame and the pressures of the media, she wore no make up and declined to curl her hair for shows as convention required, thus paving the way for what was known as the ‘afro look’.
Miriam Makeba made the world comfortable with traditional African music, and now we can say boldly that the world is incomplete without the songs of Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, Papa Wemba, Youssou N’dour, Lucky Dube, Brenda Fassie, Salif Keita, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Angelique Kidjo and many others. Also among the many singers who benefited from Makeba’s pioneering work was Fela Kuti whose music, activism and radicalism paved new ways for African music; Fela sang his way from the rustic streets of Lagos, Nigeria to Broadway and it was on Broadway that his brand of music, Afrobeat was immortalized, 15 years after his death. With his music being studied on university campuses in the USA and his children, most notably Femi Kuti, faithfully carrying on his legacy, the Broadway musical Fela! was a huge hit across the world and won several awards. Probably the bigger achievements that African music has had in the world would be the thriving success of Senegalese Akon as a mainstream hip hop artist and producer, the comfort that the world derives from the music of the Soweto Gospel Choir, and the selection of Somalian K’Naan to record the official theme song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Ah, don’t forget that the South African ‘vuvuzela’, initially derided as a noisemaker has now become the symbol of hearty soccer fans in stadiums worldwide. Who said nothing good could ever come out of the Dark Continent? Half a century ago, who could have possibly imagined the level of progress that African music has made? The world cannot get enough of pioneers, and African pioneers that is.
When Wole Soyinka stunned the world in 1986 as the first African winner of the highest literary honor on earth, the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was not the first African book written, read or awarded, but it opened up a whole new vista for the appreciation of African literature by the world. Before him, there was Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, which is doubtless the most read book in modern African literature. Between Soyinka, Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Tsitsi Dangaremba and a handful of others, the world has been compelled to listen to the stories of African folk culture and to appreciate the beauty of African diversity. Having sampled the alluring taste of African traditions through these pioneering writers, the world couldn’t help itself and craved for even more. It became much easier for more African writers to realize that it was okay for literary characters to have names that didn’t sound like ‘Janet’ and ‘Andrew’. These days, Binyavanga Wainana, Chimamanda Adichie and others are holding the forte for African fiction and feeding the world’s appetite for more of Africa.
Looking to the big screens, when she stunned the world in The Devil’s Advocate and Mighty Joe Young in the late 1990s, she didn’t fit into the typical stereotype of an African woman so people easily welcomed Charlize Theron as part of the inner-circle, but her South African heritage has never been doubted. So much has been made of Hollywood’s African-American stars, but not so much of its indigenous African actors and actresses. These days, it seems quite intuitive to see Djimon Honsou, Idris Elba or Hakim Kae Kazim star in a blockbuster movie, but they all changed history by working their ways up from the continent to Hollywood’s big stages. Names like David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor and even Gabourey Sidibe weren’t typically celebrated in the film industry, but somehow they crept up on the rest of the world and became so irresistible that Nigerian artiste Tu Face was granted a lucky break when his hit song, ‘African Queen’ was featured as a sound track on Mo’Nique’s 2006 comedy, Phat Girlz. Again, who says that nothing good can come from Africa?
For anyone who listens carefully or carelessly around the world, there are two phrases that are thrown around so easily that one might mistake them for traditional English phrases: “Hakuna Matata” and “Kumbaya”. Before the Lion King movie, “Hakuna Matata” had fascinated Boney M who released a single with that title, but no one was prepared for what Simba and his cohorts did with the phrase. No one might realize the Somalian heritage of the phrase, just as no one can trace the exact African origins of “Kumbaya” in spite of so much academic research, but everyone appreciates the fact that they are speaking a ‘strange’ language with so much comfort whenever they intend to say “no worries” or “voila”! Well, voila! We have arrived and the world can’t keep us quiet anymore.
Alek Wek would most probably be remembered more for her runway skills than anything else, Liya Kebede would most likely be eternally revered for her stunning looks, Iman Abdulmajid would possibly retain her position in history as a progenitor of African modeling, and Wole Soyinka would probably be more respected for his writing skills, but all these African patriots have added value to the world in more ways than can be imagined. Alek’s work as a missionary for World Vision and ambassador for UNICEF and Doctors without Borders, Liya’s work as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for maternal health, Iman’s work as an ambassador for Save the Children, Keep a Child Alive, Children’s Defense Fund and the Enough Project, and Wole Soyinka’s work as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of African culture are far more important than whatever personal accolades they could garner for themselves. African artistes have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate the kindheartedness, dedication and humanity of the African race and serve as beacons of light in a dark and crooked world. The course has been set for a new generation of Africans to lead the world through the paths of creativity and humanism, and only posterity will tell how well we do. So, think carefully before asking again “What beauty is there on the Dark Continent?”
You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun