As some of you have gathered via other means, I have been spending some of my time here judging beauty pageants. I have been looking forward to explaining what this means for awhile now as the image of me as a lecherous, imperialistic, pervert is probably too good an image for some of you to pass up.
The Fiji Hibiscus Festival is a huge blowout that Suva hosts each year. There are rides, attractions, parades with floats, bands etc... Some bill Hibiscus as the largest carnival in the South Pacific. Tourist literature will tell you that there are also "beauty pageants", which is the same term that I used to describe what it was that I participated in as a guest judge. This blog entry is to clarify what "beauty pageant" means in regards to Hibiscus.
I fell into Hibiscus because the PCV that I will be replacing at the MOH was active with this group as an organizing volunteer. The entire Hibiscus planning committee is made up of unpaid volunteers who dedicate an enormous amount of time to putting the festival together. There is a small cadre of paid staff but their numbers, from what I remember, are less than ten. In case it needs to be said, a Hibiscus is a flower, and a very popular one here in Fiji to boot.
Anyway, the PCV I'm replacing explained to me that the ladies were practicing for their public speaking role and they needed some judges to evaluate the candidates. She said it would be a good way to meet people and since that's what I need to do to integrate here I said yes.
The closest thing that equates to the Hibiscus Pageant for Americans would probably be Miss America- that relic of Americana that was enjoyed for many years before a confluence of changing social tides, vampiric corporate interests, and I suspect...guilt... made the pageant less appealing to the masses. Because physical beauty seemed to be emphasized above everything else (or so it seemed to me as the last time I saw a Miss America pageant was as a lecherous young teenager) I could feel that perception color my assumptions about the event.
Putting all that aside as best I could, I went and judged the teens and ladies division. There are four divisions: Teens, Ladies, Queens, and Kings. I was invited back after my first encounter to judge the Queens, and found a legitimate excuse to avoid judging the Kings.
Hibiscus participants don't prance around modeling different styles of clothes (or lack thereof), they come out, are introduced and asked a series of questions. The candidates are evaluated on the thoughtfulness of their answer, their public speaking abilities, their poise, grace, and how "lady-like" and "royal" they appear when answering their questions.
Particularly for the Kings and Queens, the primary participants of the pageant, coaching is provided to improve (or teach) public speaking skills, personal presentation and research methods. Having not been to a place like Fiji before, I would have taken this sort of training for granted, dismissing it as more of an attempt to keep the candidates from embarrassing the festival than for the benefit of the participants.
The reality is that the team that works with the ladies is wholly committed to the well being of the ladies. For a lot of these women, it could be their first experience to this sort of training and the importance of this is not lost on the planning group. On top of that, the questions are not fluff. I cringed when one young woman had to explain her position on creationism versus evolution, or the other woman who had to explain her views on abortion within the context of the country. In a nation like this, tightly intertwined with Christianity and still very modest in regards to cultural/social issues it was shocking, and refreshing to hear someones opinions on these matters expressed out loud and to a large group of strangers.
Another interesting aspect of this pageant is the diversity of it's participants. A lot of the women are students or graduates of the University of the South Pacific, Fiji's top university. Many hold multiple degrees but there are several candidates still in high school, single mothers, etc. The Hibiscus Pageant serves as a kind of public forum for the candidates to take up their causes and voice them to the community. Topics like child abuse, gender inequality, and economic issues were all brought up.
Falling in with the planners of the pageant was very fortuitous for me. Aside from its members being warm, funny, and gracious, the committee is also made up of the very people I've been looking to connect with in order to better understand how to apply design methodology to my health promotion responsibilities. In two nights I met the creative director of an advertising/graphic design firm in Suva, a young woman with a background in communications (and reigning Hibiscus Queen), and a researcher who works for the only firm in the geographic region that is capable of gathering the sort of intelligence essential for successfully mating our health outreach efforts to our rural demographics.
I'm looking forward to seeing how this year's Hibiscus festival will come together. It should be interesting to see what opportunities exist for future collaborations.