Image: Miss Malaika 2010 beauty pageant
Maggie Flick  /  AP
Contestants in the Miss Malaika 2010 beauty pageant parade down the runway in Juba, Southern Sudan, on Saturday.
updated 11/8/2010 6:17:03 AM ET 2010-11-08T11:17:03

It wasn't until after midnight that Southern Sudan's beauty pageant reached its fever pitch. It wasn't a swimsuit competition that got the crowd going, though. It was the traditional culture show.

Speakers blared American pop from Beyonce and continental hits like "African Queen" as some of the contestants backstage early Sunday covered taut stomachs in white flour to mimic cow-dung ash used in cattle camps among the south's tribes.

"Don't overdo it, don't do it less," a pageant organizer told contestants backstage where Atilia William struggled to balance a pineapple in a woven basket on her head. William is from the Zande tribe of Western Equatoria, a lush and fertile state whose symbol is the pineapple.

Southern Sudan held the Miss Malaika pageant late Saturday, a contest that featured 22 contestants from all 10 of its states. The young women strutted before a crowd of 1,500 in red dresses, casual African dress and evening gowns — though no swimsuits. The most popular segment was the culture show that saw different regions show off their traditions.

Two months remain until Southern Sudan votes in a referendum widely expected to result in independence, and the southern government is now trying to unify dissident political and military leaders in the south. During the 1983-2005 north-south civil war, Khartoum helped turn southern rivals against each other.

Unity among southerners will not happen overnight, but events like the beauty pageant and a recent competition to choose the south's national anthem underscore efforts to work across tribal lines.

Story: George Clooney: We can stop civil war in Sudan

Ruth Peter looked at ease as she glided down the red carpet catwalk in black patent leather stiletto heels and a bright red dress. Her hands shook, though, as she struggled to untie a knot holding a beaded gourd in place in a straw basket that she had balanced on her head.

Graceful performance
Once she removed the gourd from her basket, she did a brief demonstration, pretending to pour water from it. Then she grabbed the microphone and spoke in her native Nuer language. She concluded her speech in English, saying "I'm from Mayom County, and this is what we do in my culture."

Despite her graceful performance, it's no surprise the 19-year-old contestant showed inexperience in demonstrating the homemaking skills of a Nuer woman. She grew up in Khartoum after being displaced from her home in Unity state during the war and only returned to Southern Sudan this year to begin her studies in medicine at the University of Juba.

"I decided to compete because I want to do many things here in our country, for real, in our new Southern Sudan," said Peter, who is one of 15 competitors who will compete in the pageant's Dec. 6 finals. "I hope for Southern Sudan to become a great country, and for everybody to live with peace."

Most of the contestants have similar stories. They grew up in Khartoum or in a refugee camp in Kenya. Still, the young women were spared a front-row view of the toll that Sudan's long war took on the impoverished south and are now part of an elite, relatively well-educated group in Southern Sudan, where more than 85 percent cannot read or write.

Video: Clooney sounds alarm over ‘man-made’ disaster (on this page)

They are unfamiliar with pounding grain to make porridge or harvesting sesame seeds under the burning hot sun. Yet they channeled the traditions of their respective tribes for the pageant, winning admiration and cheers of approval.

Some contestants were striking, but bore little resemblance to professional models like those seen at a fashion shows in Milan or Paris.

"It's not taken as a beauty pageant like the way it is in Italy or in New York," said Lam Tungwar, a musician who helped organize the pageant. "Here we're interested in our culture."

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Video: Can tragedy be averted in Sudan?

  1. Closed captioning of: Can tragedy be averted in Sudan?

    >>> from another visits of the country trying to use the star power to pressure the white house and others into action. time is running out as they prepare for a vote. clooney initialled more action in an important meeting with the president and along with enough projects, john pendergast joins us today. thanks for bringing attention to this. george , first, let me ask you, did you get a good response from the white house ? they issued a statement yesterday some might find disappointing saying it's up to the people of sudan and the region. isn't it up to the united states to lead the world, and to be much stronger and proactive in their policy?

    >> well, i sort of walked away from that meeting with a very different response. you know, we felt that, you know, for the last couple of years or last three or four years since the agreement, the peace agreement in 2005 , that there's been some lack of intensity on focusing on what was going -- what was coming. it seems now for the last couple of months and in particular when we met with president obama that he's very focused and very determined to try and broker peace. and yes, in the united states should do everything in its power as should the rest of the -- it should also be able to bring in the rest of the international community and we walked away feeling actually -- feeling much better about the fact that the president is personally involved in it.

    >> that's encouraging because the written statement was rather ambiguous. john, let me ask you about what you have seen over the last couple of years. some say nicklas cristoff among others say there's more carrots offered than sticks.

    >> the key to peace in sudan , i think, in addition to this surge that the united states and other countries are making to try to resolve the conflict before the referendum occurs on january 9th , the key is a package of both incentives and pressures. if the pseudonees powers go down the path of peace, there should be significant benefits encolluding normalization with the united states and dealing with darfur and seeing peace in sudan , they should get the package they hope for. however, if the regime or southerners plunge the country back to war there needs to be significant consequences. that's been missing. we heard yesterday and we've seen over the last couple of months that the united states is putting that package together. we don't know if it's strong enough. we're encouraging it be as robust as possible and be multi-lateralized so the europeans and others are fully on board with an approach to try to drive the parties to peace.

    >> george , in this trip where you visited, you and the others in the group and our own ann curry , what have you seen that's changed? is there anything that encourages you about the future of this devastated region?

    >> well, first of all, you know, it is although it's not a -- the government isn't necessarily ready yet, it's infinitely further along than it was when i was in 2006 in the south sudan . i'm encouraged by the hope of these people. they have been -- they have spent generations being killed and tortured and they believe this is the chance at freedom and they're going to vote for independent. there's no question about that. the question will be how the north handles it. that will end up being how the international community puts pressure on the north and means, listen. that means china. that means perhaps egypt. and they have -- this isn't the old days. this isn't even five years ago. you know, the chinese have reasons not to have their oil lines interrupted by war so this is appealing to hun taryn issues but actual economic issues in china.

    >> you think that, george , you think that we can make it so much an interest of self interest financially to get in the line and to put pressure on bah sheer and the others in the north to not take these dreadful actions?

    >> listen. i think that in general economic actions seem to be very effective and they have been certainly effective before. i mean, listen. this is not something new. we were a big part of brokering a peace agreement in 2005 . we know how to do this without -- without having to continue a war. this is our chance to do one and stop one beforehand and we have a very good chance at doing it. it's complicated and hard and it's a lot of work. but, you know, it's worth the chance. it's worth trying.

    >> indeed. and thank you for bringing all of your passion and activism and the focus to it. you're getting people to pay attention . we thank


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