Auditions for this year's Miss Rwanda beauty pageant open this Saturday in Musanze District, Northern Province.
The following day, the activity heads to Rubavu in the Western Province, before heading to Huye and Kayonza in the Eastern Province (January 20 and 21).
The final leg of auditions will take place in Kigali on January 27. OnFebruary 3, there will be a pre-selection exercise to pick 20 finalists from the 30 aspiring contestants.
The grand finale takes place on February 24, at the Kigali Convention Centre main auditorium.
Coming of age
This year will be the 7th edition of the Miss Rwanda beauty pageant in post-genocide Rwanda. The first, in 2009, was won by Bahati Grace, a contestant who hailed from the Southern Province.
2010 and 2011 were dead years for the pageant, before bouncing back in 2012. Aurore Kayiranga, also from the Southern Province walked home with that year's crown.
Another dead year passed before Colombe Akiwacu was crowned Miss Rwanda 2014. She handed over the crown to Doriane Kundwa, the 2015 winner, who in turn passed over the crown to Jolly Mutesi in 2016.
In 2017, it was reigning Miss Rwanda, Elsa Iradukunda's turn.
In the Miss Rwanda pageant history, the latter two easily stand out.
Today, they are the only Rwandan beauty queens to grace the prestigious Miss World pageant stage. Miss World was initiated in 1951.
Last year, Iradukunda moved a notch higher than her predecessor, taking part in the pageant's Dances of the World segment. In this segment, contestants had a chance to showcase their respective country's signature cultural dance and dress. Iradukunda looked splendid in her umushanana (traditional Rwandan wear), designed in Rwanda's national colours of blue, yellow, and green. She waltzed to Cecile Kayirebwa's aptly chosen song, Abakoobwa b'iwacu, leaving fellow contestants and the viewing public in awe.
"Miss World is an event with two objectives; marketing one's country, and then it's a competition. Before thinking of competition, you have to think about the value of the country you're representing. That was our key message to Miss Rwanda," explained Ishimwe Dieudonne, the CEO of Rwanda Inspiration Backup, the current franchise holder for Miss Rwanda.
Ishimwe explained further that Miss Rwanda "is not just a body parade, but another platform for showcasing Rwandan culture".
Beauty with a purpose
Ishimwe's statement is reiterated clearly in the Miss Rwanda beauty pageant slogan -Beauty with a purpose.
"Miss Rwanda is all about beauty, brains, and culture. It's about empowering girls, and giving them a platform to give back to society. Countries select a Miss with a purpose. For us it is based on three things; beauty, brains, and culture. That comes from the traditional concept of Nyampinga - who was a girl that acted as a role model for other girls," Ishimwe said.
Under Miss World's 'Beauty with a Purpose' segment, money is raised for the benefit of worthy charitable projects from across the globe.
To this end, Rwanda's two representatives at Miss World, Mutesi and Iradukunda have their own testimonies of charitable works to tell.
Jolly Mutesi initiated an intergenerational dialogue for the youth to teach them about Rwandan values and about patriotism and the dangers of drugs, among others, visiting such far flung places as the Iwawa Rehabilitation Centre to talk to its youthful inmates and share a meal with them.
For her part, reigning Miss Rwanda Elsa Iradukunda organised cataract surgery for 200 people with visual impairments. She also paid tuition for eleven students from P1 to P6, in partnership with pageant sponsors.
In other words, the focus is shifting from mere physical attributes to judge a beauty queen, to what one can actually do for their country using the Miss Rwanda platform.
Ishimwe says, "Miss Rwanda is not necessarily the most beautiful girl in the country. Rather, it's a balance between beauty, brains, and culture."
"More of a cultural than a beauty event is how I can best describe Miss Rwanda today," explains Jolie Mutesi, Miss Rwanda 2016.
"Miss Rwanda is all about girl empowerment and cultural tourism - it's a cultural event. It focuses on how we can empower a girl to give back to society. It's a platform to serve the country and the society. Before, people thought about Miss Rwanda as the most beautiful girl in the country, but now they want to know what Miss Rwanda is doing. So it's no longer just a title but a position where you even sign a performance contract to serve the country," she concludes.
"Serving the country is not something to which you have to be appointed by the government. It's a responsibility for each and everyone in the country and there's no age limit to this," Ishimwe chips in.
In a trail blazing move, this year, the winner and two runners-up will come up with a joint project proposal as opposed to individual projects in previous years, in a bid, according to organisers, to maximise project impact.
"We want to initiate a long term project as Beauty with a Purpose Rwanda, just like in other countries where they undertake projects like building schools or projects. It's a long term project on which we are working closely with government agencies like the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF), and organisations like the Imbuto Foundation," Ishimwe says.
This year, 30 contestants will be picked after auditions in all provinces of the country. This is a slight increase from last year, when 25 contestants were pre-selected in national auditions.
Like last year, the finalists will live together in a two week intensive boot camp at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Nyamata.
Ishimwe explains that in the boot camp there are many things; empowering them, teaching them, training them in Rwandan values, and capacity building, among others.
There will also be a writing and oral assessment session, conducted in Kinyarwanda, English, French, or Swahili, depending on each contestant's preference.
"What we are looking for is ideas, not just fluent English," Ishimwe explains the rationale for the multi-lingual options.