Rexdale resident Jessica Acquaye has been raised firmly rooted in African culture and traditions. She wears traditional African clothing, partakes in the spicy cuisine and actively promotes the continent, particularly Ghana which is her parents’ birth country. The only thing missing on Acquaye’s resume is a visit to the West African country which she can now look forward to after being crowned Miss AfriCanada early last Sunday morning at the 13th annual African Heritage pageant in Vaughan.
The 20-year-old University of Toronto final-year kinesiology & physical health education student plans to use one of her prizes – return airfare tickets for two donated by Kenya Airways – to journey to Ghana with her mom Elizabeth Tweneboah who owns a west end beauty supply store.
“My entire family was supportive of me during this process,” said Acquaye who also won the Best Talent and Traditional Wear individual awards. “My mom closed her store early on some days to take me looking for clothes and accessories for the pageant. She has connections in the Ghanaian community here and she knew where to go to get the right things for me that would put me in a position to do well in the contest.”
Wearing a purple and gold mermaid-shape evening dress that she helped design, Acquaye beat out nine other contenders for the coveted crown.
The St. Basil-The-Great College School honours graduate has been associated with the pageant since 2006 when she handed out flowers to the top three finishers. She worked as a backstage assistant the following year providing water and snacks for the contestants and in 2008 introduced the judges.
“The pageant fell on my birthday in 2009 and last year it was a week before a very important exam I had,” the third of fourth children said. “That’s the reason I was not present but contesting the event was something I felt I should do in the African community. It took me a little while before I finally made up my mind and I signed up just before last April’s deadline.”
Acquaye, who won a 2009 Proctor & Gamble Black Business and Professional Association scholarship, intends to use her winning platform to promote wellness and physical activity in the Black community.
“There is an increase in diabetes and coronary heart disease in our community,” said the new queen who will also receive a $1,000 scholarship. “I am going to be a big advocate for eating well and physical activity engagement.”
A co-founder of her university faculty’s Black History Month celebration and member of the Centre for Leadership and the intra-mural basketball team, Acquaye aspires to be a physiotherapist or cardiac rehabilitation therapist.
University of Ottawa criminology and psychology student Lilian Tshimanga, representing the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigerian-born York University psychology student Linda Osifo were the first and second runners-up respectively.
Lisa Sterling, one of the judges, said the pageant was very competitive.
“The winner and runner-up, however, stood out,” she said. “Besides being bilingual, the runner-up was phenomenal and extremely gracious. On the other hand, Jessica was very clear and concise in her answers expressing rare confidence and she was able to effectively communicate with her audience, especially through her talent.”
Yolen Kamara, 19, and Marswa Yarmeto finished fourth and fifth. Kamara is a U of T third-year student and member of the varsity cross country and track and field team and the Black Students Association while Yarmeto recently graduated from Centennial College’s social service worker program and will enter York University next month to pursue a sociology degree.
The other contestants were Nigerian-born Ifeoma Okonta who is studying nursing at Ryerson University; Joy Edward, who was born in the Republic of South Sudan and raised in Cairo before coming to Toronto at age 14; York University information technology student Vanessa Camara who was born and raised in the Ivory Coast; Belgium-born Tais Bangala who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo before migrating to Canada where she’s enrolled in Ryerson University’s Public Administration & Governance program and third-year York University Nigerian-born student Queen Nkupbre.
Yarmeto (Congeniality), Kamara (Most Dedicated), Osifo (Miss Entrepreneur), Camara (Photogenic) and Tshimanga (Evening Wear) were the other individual award winners.
Ghanaian immigrant Wofa Yaw Nyarko started the pageant in 1999 to showcase Africa’s diversity. He’s the president of the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario and program director of Vision 2000 Education and Health Organization which is a Toronto-based charitable agency.