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.
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.
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.
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."