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Ajuma tackles racism in fashion world

Business Day Africa
Ajuma Nasenyana

Ajuma Nasenyana

She is a familiar face on the runways of the fashion capitals of the world: Milan, New York, Paris and London. But after all the glamour and lights, 23-year-old Ajuma Nasenyana just wants just to be a midwife.

Known by her first name,  Ajuma, as a rookie was a model in the New York Fashion Week of 2003 for Ford Models’ top clients like Vivianne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.  

She says that every designer makes her feel and look different. The Phat Farm label is hip-hop and very relaxed and very causal compared to Alexander McQueen label, which is haute couture (high dressmaking) and chic that makes her feel sophisticated. “Victoria’s Secret makes me feel sexy,” says Ajuma with a giggle.

Born in Lodwar, she has won the international fashion industry over with her confidence and looks: even dark skin, short hair, high cheekbones, and full lips.  It started four years ago when she participated in the Miss Tourism Kenya competition. Although she was a favourite of the crowd, she did not win.

Lyndsey McIntyre of Surazuri Models spotted her “supermodel” potential and sponsored the then 19- year-old to enter the Ford Models Supermodel of the World Search 2003 to represent Kenya.  

She is in town to represent the agency in the finale of M-Net’s Catwalk Kenya. The winner of this competition is expected to represent Kenya in the Ford Models competition in New York next year and compete with over 50 contestants.   

What makes her stand out from other Ford winners is that she is the first black model to ever win this competition that was not aimed at solely promoting black models.

Currently, the black models account for only four per cent of the full-time working models.  A good case in mind is this year’s New York’s Fashion Week. New York Times noted that there were few Latina, Asian and black models on the catwalk and the Calvin Klein label had used only white models.

“It is really sad when you flip through Vogue and all you see are white models,” she says.  It has not gone unnoticed though. Naomi Campbell, a black supermodel and others like Tyra Banks and Iman have spoken on this subject  a lot lately.

They argue that the industry is discriminating against black models and according to some it is worse than in the 1960s. “We have  formed a group that gets together and talk about our problems,” says Ajuma.

A group of aspiring American black models are forming their own lobby too. Then the Ajumas and Imans of that world tell them how difficult it is especially since the industry is dominated by whites, but keep encouraging them to pursue their dreams.

Hard times though. Ajuma says in certain audition podiums, black models have  been somewhat embarrassed when a designer does not  mince words and thrust onto the models a shocker that the event was not for blacks! She adds that black models do get bookings “here and there,” but still feels they (black models) have kind of accepted this humiliation. This is not right, Ajuma says.

“Some designers claim that black models make their clothes look too sexy and would prefer the thin white models,” she says.  And the models being too thin has been a hot topic lately. In the last two years, the fashion fraternity has been caught in a whirlwind of how unhealthy the thin models might be.

The Madrid Fashion Week, in Spain, was the first one to ban models using Body Mass Index (BMI) — ratio based on using weight and height — in 2006.
The modelling agencies came out fighting because about 30 per cent of the models were turned away, including Ajuma. She has an athletic body and initially trained as a runner.  

Nevertheless, her BMI was under what was considered  healthy, but when checked,  doctors found  her blood sugar to be all right. Her metabolism was also okay.

The spark that ignited all this was the death of a British model who succumbed to eating disorder related complications. With that comes the blame that the fashion industry makes women and men to be anorexia and bulimia to become thin.  “It depends on the people you choose to be around,” she says.

Modelling is not a long time career.  By 26, a model is considered to be old. “I am focused on my family because they depend on me and the future. I am saving to study. I want to be a midwife.”