Catwalking all the way out of Africa
Aamito Stecie Lagum sits perched on an armchair on the top floor of the Sheraton. Her spindly frame is not fully on display, but her square facial lines and big slanted eyes – set widely apart – glint with determination. Immediately arresting. She is the recent winner of first Africa's Next Top Model, the continent-wide model search based on Tyra Banks' infamous TV franchise.
And she is Ugandan.
"The industry here is so young and associated with something negative," Aamito admits, in a cautious acknowledgement of the country's new laws that in effect equate miniskirts with pornography: it is not only gays and lesbians who are being targeted in the morally outraged Uganda.
"Some people think of models in the same way they would prostitutes," she says. "Most people don't understand that this is a legitimate business."
An only child born in the Ugandan capital city in 1992, at the age of five Lagum was shipped off to her grandparents in the northern town Kitgum while her mother, the family breadwinner, sought alternative means to make a living after losing her secretarial job.
Although the monetary cost of rural living was less, the will to survive was deeper. Rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army were plundering Uganda's north, terrorising and abducting an estimated 20 000 people, mostly children – to replenish his waning support base between 1987 and 2006. Civilians who did not want to settle in the government camps (where violence and disease were rife) took their chances and would vacate their homesteads at night when rebel soldiers were most likely to attack.
"I remember times when I slept in the bush," remembers Lagum. "It wasn't a big deal for me, I was a kid. We had rules. When you're in the bush you're not supposed to take odi [a staple paste of sesame seeds and peanuts] because the smell can attract the rebels. My grandmother was very enterprising. She grew passionfruit that formed an enclosure, and that's where I would hide out with my cousins."
Eventually finding her way back to Kampala, Lagum tried her hand at modelling at 16, to earn some pocket money. Walking for local designers such as Gloria Wavamuno and Adele Dejak, her ambition and confidence grew. "I grew up knowing that beauty meant having big boobs, a full body and fair skin. It wasn't until I joined the business that I actually felt beautiful. When people would tell me about my cheekbones."
Those very striking features – and the tenacity with which she sailed through every challenge thrown at her on Africa's Next Top Model – made Lagum the clear favourite with supermodel Oluchi Onweagba, photographers Josie Borain and Remi Aditiba and Elle South Africa editor Jackie Burger.
"Aamito is a very confident girl. I think she wants it so bad. I just hope she keeps it up," Onweagba offers during the season finale.
When Lagum took that 12-hour overnight bus journey from Kampala to Nairobi, where the show auditions were being held, she had the equivalent of $50 in her pocket, just enough to make the audition the same morning she arrived in the Kenyan capital, and then head back home in the evening.
The contract with DNA Model Management affords her the opportunity to escape from Uganda to the United States in the wake of the passing of the new laws that put many lives at risk.
The anti-pornography law rules that women may not wear anything that exposes their breast, buttocks or thighs – banning what the government terms as "indecent" clothing. It has been reported that several women wearing miniskirts have been harassed and assaulted since the Bill was signed a few weeks ago.
For a professional model like Lagum, the concern is obvious, and her response to its enactment is a measured resignation: "I know that at some point I will have to wear a miniskirt on the runway. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar," the self-proclaimed "strong Christian" paraphrases a Bible verse.
Then she adds in the same spirit: "If you're in Uganda you have to live under the law."