Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

A few minutes after the lead-judge announced Elsa Iradukunda as Miss Rwanda 2017 at the Grand Finale, emcee and TV host Andrew Kareba asked the soon-to-be nineteen-year-old what was the secret to her win. She raised her modulated voice, with a smiley face, and simply said the secret was “to pray.”

As we grow, especially in this part of the world, we’re taught that prayers can do anything. So it’s only right for any youngster to say they used prayers to win a contest. But, of course, Elsa did not win the crown because of her devotion to religion and endless prayers. She was one remarkable contestant among fifteen undeniably smart and gorgeous young Rwandan girls, full of potential.

In the first weekend of the Miss Rwanda auditions this year, we travelled to the north-western town of Rubavu, where the organising team and the judges would meet representatives for the province. Six girls, including Elsa, who became the seventh Miss Rwanda, late last month, were allowed to audition. Unlike pretty much the rest of the regions we travelled to, the girls in Rubavu were aggressive.

There was twenty-two-year-old Caroline Umutoni and twenty-year-old Sandrine Uwineza whose confidence spoke to all three judges — Mike Karangwa, hotelier Odette Nyiramongi and myself — and made us pull up our expectations; there was the soft-spoken and elegant Elsa, whose answering was well-nigh unsatisfactory to me (she said it was her first time to stand before such an audience to speak) but her mien seemed to be packed with ambition and desire to grow, move forward; and Guelda Shimwa, who sounded cultivated and well-spoken; there was the dramatic and firm Honorine Hirwa Uwase, a.k.a “Gisabo,” and there was Linda Umutoniwase, whose sharp words projected a sense of vision. They all passed the test.

In my notes, there was nothing negative about the auditions in the region. Even the beautiful lake view, with the sunset, from the hill where Belvedere hotel sits, can testify.

Later in the evening, as we moved to Musanze, one friend who had come along to witness the first two auditions whispered in my ears that he thinks Elsa, of all six contestants, had potential and that she would reveal herself as the competition unfolds. It sounded like an interesting view but I really did not care — all the contestants had potential, in my view, and I understood the auditions wasn’t the perfect space to see exactly who has more of this and that.

There are three types of girls who sign up for Miss Rwanda auditions, if you ask me. One, who comes for the purpose of adventure; and just that. Another one whose view of the pageant is just the concept of beauty but above all, and mostly, the influence of her belief in her physical appearance. Sometimes, the influence is external — people, friends and family, keep telling her she’s beautiful and should run for the title. Such contestants usually spend a lot of effort on one trait, and it’s never enough.

And then another one who sees Miss Rwanda as a platform for visibility that is coupled with huge potential for empowerment and growth, and wants to use it to achieve something. Many of the girls — perhaps even all of them — who made it to the top fifteen, I could see them in the third category.

The day following the final event, I also had a chance to chat with different people about Elsa’s character and how it relates to her win. Among these people was one of her uncles who expressed hope and gratulation over her “significant growth in confidence, intellect and curiosity lately.”

It is true that competition and drive to succeed can sometimes spark a spirit of self-improvement. For people who kept a close eye, Elsa is strong, sharp and energetic, and has leadership potential. And, above all, she managed to put herself at the forefront (more obviously right after passing the auditions and throughout the boot camp) and stayed there.

Elsa poses with Fanique (L) and Pamella (R) | Photo by Kigali Today

She was no different from many of her contenders — the competition was significantly tough — but perhaps her sense of vision and leadership, and her ability to project it all naturally, is what became the ultimate tool. The matron, and many other people I spoke with after the event, seemed to agree.

From the seat of a judge, you see things differently and the perspective makes you realise it’s not about personal choice but digging up what the platform deserves. We all believe she will make a great representation of what Miss Rwanda stands for, even as the journey to building itself continues.

Two weeks down the road, I remarked to Elsa that “things are always ‘good’ with you” in reference to her positive attitude exhibited throughout our engagements and her overuse of ‘good,’ ‘fine,’ and ‘okay.’ She took seconds to think and then said, “Yeah, life is what you make it.”

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