Marie-France Sharamanzi (Shara) Temahagali entered the 15th annual Afri Canada pageant to overcome the fear of public speaking and move beyond her comfort zone.
The shrewd move paid dividends with the University of Toronto student clinching the crown at last Saturday night’s showcase at the City Playhouse Theatre in Vaughan in the presence of excited family members and friends.
Temahagali also won a Toronto Police Foundation $10,000 scholarship, a $2,000 bursary donated by St. Joseph’s Health Centre physician Dr. Joseph Bremang and an airline ticket from Kenya Airways to travel to an African country of her choice.
“This all seems like a beautiful dream,” she said less than 24 hours after being crowned. “When my roommate, who was the second runner-up last year, told me about her experience in the event and encouraged me to take part, I took up the offer because I thought it was the perfect stage to overcome some fears I had. I will miss the Sunday rehearsals that lasted 12 weeks and the great time I had with the other contestants.”
Temahagali plans to use her travel prize to return to Rwanda, the country of her birth.
“I want to go back there and initiate discussions about promoting equality and tolerance by starting at the elementary level in schools because I believe that the conflict in that country is rooted in inequality,” she said. “The youths there need to make judgments about people based on character and merit.”
The mass genocide in the central and east African country 19 years ago forced the family to flee to neighbouring Kenya when she was two years old. They also lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia before coming to the Greater Toronto Area as refugees in 1998. The family was granted Canadian citizenship nine years later.
“That was one of the happiest days in my life because finally I have a place that I could call home,” said Temahagali, who plans to enter law school next year. “It was such a great feeling after moving around for so many years.”
The Miss Congeniality winner was also the recipient of the Miss Humanitarian Award for raising nearly $400 for the Hands of Heart charity established by last year’s winner, Christine Kitoko.
Egyptian-born Emanuela Bringi and refugee Sandrine De Vincent were the first and second runners-up, respectively.
The product of parents who fled South Sudan because of civil conflict, Bringi and her family came to Canada in 1997, compliments of a church group that stepped up as their sponsors.
“The pageant has been a learning experience for me,” she said. “I made new friends with girls who have the same passion like me to effect change in communities. We all have the same vision even though the routes we are taking to achieve the results we want are different.”
Bringi, who won the Best Traditional Wear and Most Dedicated Contestant individual awards, spent 13 years in London, Ontario volunteering with the Limberlost Chaplaincy as a youth worker and participating in newcomer settlement programs before relocating to Toronto in 2010 to pursue social worker-immigrant and refugees’ studies at Seneca College.
After graduating two years ago, she enrolled in York University’s multicultural and indigenous studies program.
Bringi intends to move to South Sudan to use her skills and knowledge to effect change.
Rwanda-born De Vincent, who lived in Kenya and Malawi before coming to Toronto three years ago, has been a refugee for the last 11 years.
“I basically grew without much freedom, but I never lost hope that I will not become an achiever and leader,” said the aspiring Canadian citizen. “I know what it feels like to wake up with no home, no food and no support. Being a refugee is not a crime. We are just victims of circumstances and people should understand and respect that.”
De Vincent said she entered the pageant to network, establish new friendships and showcase her platform to support girls’ education, particularly those who are refugees in Africa.
“For me, pageants are not about showing off beauty alone,” said the Best Talent and Miss Social winner. “Black women are beautiful and we don’t have to compete against one another to demonstrate who is more beautiful than the other. It’s about using the stage to display our culture and showing how we want to make our contribution to society.”
The other contestants were Globe & Mail business reporter Thandiwe Vela, who was born in Zimbabwe; Mira Tshilombo, who raised $800 for a Congo non-profit organization – Women for Women – while living in Cornwall before moving to Toronto last month; McMaster University students Rhema Ossai, who clinched the Miss Photogenic Award and Vanessa Namazzi, who aspires to build a home for sexual assault victims; Adaora Agu – the Best Evening Wear winner – who plans to partner with Free the Children – an international charity and educational partner – to adopt a Nigerian village and build a school and Danna Charles.
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 executive director of Vision 2000 Education and Health Organization which is a Toronto-based charitable agency.
By RON FANFAIR