The easy act of putting food in the mouth belies an arduous process that comes before it, a process some have been known to avoid at all costs and only show up when the food is being or just about to be served. In Setswana, these type of people are known as bo-mabina go tsholwa – those who dance when food is being served. From tlhomela to polka to amapaino, these meal-time dancers have taken virtual residence on the dance floor ever since Miss Botswana 2021, Palesa Molefe, started dishing dazzled in Puerto Rico.
With her victory at Miss Universe 1999, Mpule Kwelagobe literally put Botswana on the map and should have impressed the importance of beauty pageants upon everyone. This was the 20th century, a period of time when “branding” simply meant a mark indicating identity that Batswana farmers burned on the hide of their cattle with a hot iron. For Botswana, Mpule would give the term its futuristic 21st century meaning.
On account of her victory, a greater number of people got to know that Botswana was not part of South Africa. At the time, the Botswana Book Centre manager revealed that their foreign-origin mail was no longer addressed to “Botswana, South Africa” but to “Botswana, Southern Africa.” The organisers had achieved this feat with very little help from the nation. After Mpule’s win though, one would have thought that enough people had supported her from the very early stages.
Contestants need support from political, business and civil society leaders as well as from ordinary members of the public. That was not the case with Mpule: she only became a heroine after winning Miss Universe. In service of cautious exercise of magnanimity, one can overlook the overlooking of the scented vocation that produced Mpule as Botswana’s first brand ambassador. However, such understanding has to be made within the context of what a literally big man and even bigger rapper who lost his notoriety two years (March 9, 1997) before Mpule shone bright on the stage said in one of his hit songs: And if you don’t know, now you know, nigga. Rightly, post-1999 it became officially wrong for Botswana to act indifferently towards beauty contests because it knew their value. Tragically, we have seen that wrong being repeated over and over again after Mpule’s year-long reign.
A Mpule or a Palesa is produced by an arduous process and while the ultimate winner represents an industry, she is not herself the industry. It doesn’t make sense to support a winner and not the industry. At a point where they labour in obscurity, beauty pageants have to contend with a lot of challenges and it is during these early stages that they need but don’t get support. After her return from Puerto Rico, Palesa has been getting star treatment all the way. A connecting Air Botswana flight from Johannesburg was delayed on her account. A crowd of supporters braved a downpour and thronged the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport to welcome her back home and she was whisked away from the airport in a gleaming Range Rover bearing personalized licence plates.
The following day, at a mock-cheque presentation ceremony, Palesa was given a sum of money so huge it should have been entrusted to an elderly person from the Molefe family – her mother or uncle. At this point, if Palesa applied for a residential plot in Mochudi, a commercial plot in Pilane, an industrial plot in Gaborone and a concession area in the Okavango Delta, not only would the minister responsible for land personally approve her applications, he would also make the allocations the next day and profusely apologise for the delay.
It is proper that Palesa is being feted and rewarded for her ambassadorship but where was all this support when she and other contestants needed it most? Is she being genuinely rewarded for what she has done or do certain meal-time dancers merely want to share her spotlight? Does it make sense to support a beauty-queen ambassador and not beauty contestants at a time that they need such support the most? Why is Botswana repeating its 1999 mistake because Mpule’s victory crystallised what Notorious B.I.G usefully says about in Juicy: And if you don’t know, now you know, nigga. We can draw a 10-page list of the goodies that Palesa has received from the government but none has gone to the industry that produced her. Granted, we are mixing metaphors but benefactors are too focused on ripe fruit to even barely notice the tree that produced that fruit.
Money is the most obvious and most badly needed support but there is also support that has nothing to do with money. Globally, beauty contests are virtually unregulated and contestants often have to put up with unusual rules. Believe it or not but a little over a decade ago, Miss Botswana contestants were required to not have a boyfriend. Let’s not forget that these contests involve people whose hormones just started raging. How on God’s green earth are they expected to resist boys who wear only three quarters of their trousers over check underwear and stylishly waddle like ducks down the Airport Junction walkway, while energetically relaying a mouthful of Ebonics over an iPhone 13 Pro Max? How?
Through the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sports and Culture, the government could ensure that beauty-pageant rules are rationalized and less taxing on the contestants. A “no-relatives” contest might be lying farther down the road. The same ministry could also help build Botswana Council of Women’s capacity such that what leads to headlines like “Miss Botswana’s skeletons topple out the closet” is eliminated. In other words, the government could take good care of the tree such that it produces more good fruit, rather than just focus on ripe fruit that can pretty much fend for itself.
Members of the public can play as useful a role. When Sunday Standard posted a picture of Palesa gliding down a flight of stairs in a cream-white evening dress on its Facebook page, there was no shortage of snarky comments about the quality of the dress. (The writer, who comes from the rural side of a semi-urban village, was horrified to learn that the designer was a man but has since been learnt that is par for the course. Who knew?) Before working oneself into a lather of rage about Miss Botswana’s wardrobe at Miss World not being world-class, shouldn’t you first ensure that it is indeed world-class before she flies out? It is highly unlikely that the BCW would turn down cash donations from patriotic Batswana who want to ensure that their flag-bearer is catered for in every way. If BCW does that for the next edition of the contest, would the fashion police contribute? Just in case they didn’t know that the wardrobe of a Miss World’s contestant is very expensive, now they know.