BY BENEZERI WANJALA
Santina was panting. Behind her, dozens of ladies watched. In front of her, a trainer stood, counting. “Twenty nine, twenty eight, twenty seven…” Santina couldn’t go on any longer. But she had to. This wasn’t a dream- at least not anymore. She was a Miss Uganda contestant, and she was in the boot-camp. It was part of the process. Each point counted.
Sports day was held at the end of the first week of boot- camp. The 22 contestants had been training every day since the boot-camp commenced. Santina Ansehemeza, a student of Uganda Christian University, was contestant number 3. This meant that she was the third shortest lady in the fold. This is a fact that is hard to believe when one sees her. She is tall for a lady. It must have been a really tall lot.
Santina recalls some of the rigors involved prior to Sports Day. “We were up at 5:30, and we went and jogged or worked out.” One of the facilitators knocked at the doors and the contestants made off to exercise. At 7am, one of the contestants, depending on whose turn it was, served breakfast to everyone else. By now the ladies were freshened up and ready for the day.
What normally followed was a class session, presided over by a facilitator, including former beauty queens. The contestants were coached on various topics, in preparation for the finale. Once in a while, Mr. Purpose, a motivational speaker, spoke to the ladies and inspired them. Lunch followed and then another class session in the afternoon, after which there was practice for Sports Day. After supper, another class session was held, and at 10pm, they went to bed.
On Sports Day, the contestants were ferried from their hotel in Naguru, to Sheraton Hotel grounds. They were split into three groups- red, blue and green. Activities ranged from sprints to relays, and everything in between. Santina was in the green group, she says. Even though the contestants had been bundled into groups, they were still accumulating points individually. By some fortune, or misfortune, Santina got wind of the fact that after an entire day’s work, she had garnered a measly two points- by far the worst of the lot. She broke down, and threw a tantrum. “I wasn’t good at sports and I didn’t expect to get many points, but two points was unacceptable.”
She managed to convince the facilitator to give her another go. The facilitator informed her that she would do push ups continuously for 30 seconds. The contestants were all present as she huffed and puffed. Sadly, she was unsuccessful and she was given one final task. She would sit and arch forward towards her toes for a similar duration (30 seconds). She was able to ignore the pain that was building up in her stomach muscles, and when she completed, her colleagues congratulated her.
That weekend, Visitation Day occurred. On this day, parents and close family members were allowed to visit their daughters. Santina was something of a celebrity already. She owed this to the fact that she was leading the polls for the Miss Popularity contest. “Parents of contestants were asking their daughters, ‘Who is Santina?’ Who is Santina?’” Soon she was offering advice to a bevy of parents eager for their daughters to get more votes. Two weeks later at the finale, one week after the Talent night, she would be crowned Miss Popularity and Miss MTN Pulse. Then she would be stripped of one of the crowns publicly.
“It still hurts when I try to remember it,” she admits. On the eve of the finale, she “slept” at 3am. They were too anxious to really sleep. “Why would you sleep?” she asks me. She made do with lying on the bed and waiting for morning. At 10am, they set off for Sheraton Hotel, once again. For most of the day their hair, nails and make up were being done, by the various events sponsors.
She walked down the winding platform, in spite of the nerves. “The most frightening thing for me was the bright lights.” After the votes were tallied, she received two, actually three pieces of good news. The first was that she had finished in the top 10. From this point on, it was anyone’s crown because this stage came down to a question- and- answer interaction with the judges. The second and third pieces of good news was that she would be crowned Miss Pulse and Miss Popularity. Together, with her crown, and in front of blinking camera lights, she was wrapped with a sash that confirmed her new status. She signed a check of UGX 2,000,000 and received a phone, amongst other goodies. She handed them over to somebody else that she trusted as soon as she got off the stage. When she went backstage, she posted on Instagram, sparking excitement amongst her thousands of fans, including this writer.
What happened next is something that she still visibly struggles to talk about. In fact, during the interview she had to close her eyes as she recounted the story. They say bad luck comes in threes. And hers unfolded like dominoes. As she waited backstage to be interrogated by the judges, a lady came and asked for her sash. She didn’t suspect anything. She went on to the stage but she lost focus and didn’t hear the question the judge asked. “I don’t even know where my mind was,” she says. The judge repeated the question but she stuttered as she answered. “I knew I had lost out on top five.”
When she went back on stage, not only did she confirm that she hadn’t made the top five; she was also informed that she was being stripped of the position of Miss Pulse. “I just said okay. I had nothing else to say.” About a week prior, they had changed the voting system. Voters had to vote afresh. Her colleague was leading these new polls. So she hadn’t expected to be crowned. But the humiliation that came with being crowned and stripped of the crown in front of the audience was a very hard pill to swallow.
A few days later, she got wind of the fact that there was going to be a separate crowning ceremony for the new Miss Pulse. She showed up and attended, for her friend.” Unfortunately, I arrived as it was ending but at least I was able to show up and congratulate her.”
What kept Santina going, through all these hurdles? “It was God. It was definitely God. During boot-camp I prayed about every small detail. Every meal we had, every activity we were going into, even the clothes I would wear. I had never worn a bikini and I was shy. I prayed that I got the confidence to. My colleagues in the boot-camp knew me as the pastor of the camp.” How did she feel about God after the finale? “I was coming to that. I don’t think I would have made it through the humiliation and afterwards, if God hadn’t granted me the peace. But also, I don’t think I would have made it to top 10 without Him.” Her family held a thanksgiving ceremony for her in Kiruhura where they thanked God for her success. Her parents had been skeptical about the pageant. They had misconceptions about it. But they became her biggest supporters. “Now, everyday my dad calls me and tells me that I am his beauty queen.”
She looks up to Flavia Tumusiime Kabuura, the news anchor, and she hopes that she can become a TV presenter and a news anchor in the future. For now, she says, she is focused on her studies. She will also endeavour to live a “normal” life, she says. Before I leave her residence, where the interview is held, I ask for permission to hold the crown. She grants it. It’s heavier than it looks. I tell her that no matter what happens, history will remember that in 2019, she finished in the top 10. She also won Miss Popularity (Although Miss Pulse was won by someone else). Those are facts and they can’t be taken from her. She agrees.