How a Ugandan teenager defied child abuse and found her way into the finals of a beauty contest

In 2006, Aisha Nabukera’s story gripped Uganda – a body burnt beyond recognition, thousands of uncoordinated stories, her smell of innocence and pain, yet one thing was constant; her future had been shattered.

Aisha Nabukeera is Contestant Number 3 in Uganda's Beauty Pageant
Aisha Nabukeera is Contestant Number 3 in Uganda’s Beauty Pageant

With open flesh for a limb, it was easy to imagine that such things as living as woman, wearing bras, bare backs and half tops were nothing but a myth for the youngster.
The pictures of her burnt body were shopped around the media for nearly four months, and making it to the cover page for most of these times.
Much as she was in pain, the then eleven year old girl always afforded a smile. The commonest story was, Nabukera’s step mother, one Ndagire had reportedly soaked her dress in kerosene and then forcing her to wear it and light a candle. With her father, Ahmad Matovu defending his second wife, the step mother, Nabukera was left under the care of her mother in hospital, with unpaid bills.

Aisha Nabukeera during her path to healing
Aisha Nabukeera during her path to healing

Much as Nabukera’s case got the activists and politicians talking, nine years after the incident, she has never found justice and neither does the public know what really happened on the fate night.
Uganda could be one of the places where child abuse could be deemed overrated; for many years, at least many schools publically scolded pupils, the police continuously beating street children and on more than an occasion, pictures of children selling food and merchandise for their parents – and no one feels any pangs of guilt that such a child is being exploited.

Aisha Nabukeera
Aisha Nabukeera

Not even the parents that are usually reported for inflicting burns on children for stealing food or money are punished, at worst; they will be arrested for a few days.
It’s that kind of tough love where many believe that a parent that whips or scolds you actually loves you, and that’s how many have been brought up, thus a case like Nabukera to shock a country was indeed extreme.

Frank Gashumba who adopted Aisha
Frank Gashumba who adopted Aisha

She was later picked at the verandahs of death by philanthropist and activist Frank Gashumba, who took her on as his own daughter – with all offers and kinds of help coming in, she didn’t have a hard time getting through school.
She joined Horizon Campus of the St. Lawrence Schools and Colleges since they had not only offered her a secondary school scholarship but also had her university studies covered.
In 2014, Nabukera sat for her Advanced Level exams at London College of St. Lawrence, one of Uganda’s best private schools. In a much publicized interview with a local paper tabloid, she noted she would want to become a human rights lawyer, just to see that many children out there get the justice that invaded her.
Fast forward to 2015, Nabukera was contestant number 3 as they announced finalists for the upcoming Miss Uganda pageant – the country’s biggest beauty crown.
Even before she left the podium, her name had already created frenzy on social media, all owing to her painful past.

Aisha Nabukeera contestant Number 3 Miss Uganda Photo Courtesy of Miss Uganda world
Aisha Nabukeera contestant Number 3 Miss Uganda Photo Courtesy of Miss Uganda world

It was something many Ugandans took as a surprise though, according to some of her classmates, it was not that shocking; it’s said the torture survivor was always full of life and participated in many karaoke shows in school.

“When I was new, I saw her participate in some dance and I didn’t even recognize her,” says one of her former schoolmates only known as Maria Goretti.

Goretti though notes that in some way, Nabukera attracted attention, for instance, when many new students joined the school, they would try to treat her differently, but this was until they got used to her.

Aisha Nabukeera
Aisha Nabukeera

Of course many Ugandan journalists have picked up the story, most with mixed feelings; they believe that the entire pageant will be driven by emotions and thus unfair to her fellow contestants while others believe, she doesn’t have to compete because she doesn’t have what it takes – a beautiful body!!
While many of these schools of thought may be right or wrong, Nabukera stands to change the land scape of beauty contests and how people view them in this part of the world; she presents herself as a brave girl that has accepted her past without letting it determine her future.

“The scars are reminders of what I’ve been through, but they will not dictate where am going,” she said in one of the recent interviews.

Not that she’s the first outstanding contestant Uganda has seen; in 2001, when many elite Ugandans viewed the event as a parade of uneducated desperate bimbos, they scored a doctor for a winner in Rehema Nakuya and when it’s morality was on the line, they landed the profoundly deaf Aidat Nabukalu.

What makes Nabukera different is the fact that she has literally lived the nine years after the gruesome incident in the eyes of the Ugandan public, her father is a recognizable figure because of his outspokenness and her sister Sheila Gashumba is one of the most successful youths in the country.Her presence on the podium with those scars almost presents a story deeper than the pageant it’s self – a story of survival, courage and confidence, especially in a place where girls hide in tons of make up because of a nagging pimple.

The decision to stand, according to Sheila, was one she personally made. This brings her close to Chantelle Winnie, a Canadian model that has boldly taken the runway even with a rare skin condition vitiligo. But the attention she’s gathering has also put the pageant’s integrity on the spot – like journalists, many Ugandans are worried the decision of the winner may be based on emotions, feelings and pity rather than her ability.

“Her story was highly publicized thus it’s understandable for other contestants to feel a bit cheated,” says one Clare Muhindo, a Ugandan following the contest.

There are also rumors that she wasn’t outstanding in the preliminary stages, though, she was only shortlisted because she could easily revive the show with many positive reviews. Many more are not happy that her abuse is taking centre stage because they feel it’s undermining other contestants, many of whom may have gone through worse growing up.

Nabukera has a touching story, though; a competition like Miss Uganda is not one where emotions play a role. Her brevity does win her some ticks considering that it’s a competition that aims at empowering women, where in her case, this is about accepting who you are without fixing the body, but still, it plays so little in determining the winner.

However, come July 10, when the winner is announced, whether it’s Nabukera or not, her presence on the podium will be a victory for many child abuse and domestic violence victims still suffering in silence around the continent.

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