Madison College international student Karen Kakou is a finalist for the title of Miss Africa USA this weekend at the Filmore Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, and she couldn't be more excited about the opportunity. The scholarship pageant focuses on building confidence and empowering young women to give back to under-served communities in Africa and the United States.
“I am so very excited. I can't wait. I'm just a little nervous. But I feel like I won already by just participating,” Kakou tells The Madison Times in an interview at Madison College. “It's not just the crown that matters but just the fact that a lot of people will be able to hear about the issues that are important for me. And it's a good networking event. Just by participating in this pageant is exciting and a big step for me.”
There will be 25 contestants at Miss Africa USA 2013 from all over the United States representing various countries in Africa. Kakou will officially be representing Ivory Coast. In attendance will be a host of celebrities, African ambassadors, community leaders, and more who will witness the grand finals and the coronation of the next African Queen in the United States.
“On the 28th, we will be presenting our [humanitarian] projects. On the 29th, is the fun part where we will show off out African attire and our talents,” Kakou says. “I'm excited for the 29th because I have two designers working for me and they've done an amazing job. I can't wait to wear those beautiful dresses.”
Each year, Miss Africa USA Pageant brings young women together to represent their countries and share their cultures with the rest of the world, celebrate the power of the African woman, and foster sisterhood. The pageant helps to build self-esteem and confidence in young African women growing up in a diverse culture
“My whole life people have been telling me, 'Oh, you should be a model,'” the 5'11” Kakou smiles. “So I began to look around a little bit. My girlfriend Megan in Washington D.C. called me one day and said, 'Karen! Check this out!' and she sent me a link to Miss Africa USA. The vision [of the pageant] was so much of what I wanted. They actually promote young African woman and community work, leadership, etc. This is really what I do. It's much more than just looking pretty.”
The pageant will be a multifaceted competition including the “Traditional African Girl Presentation” where all the delegates will showcase the unique traditional African girl look from their country of origin and showcase the national colors of their country. The “Fashion Parade” segment will focus on contemporary African couture and contestants will be judged on presence, personal style, beauty, and elegance. There will also be a talent portion and an interview portion where delegates will answer a question on current affairs in Africa, the United States, or the world.
Kakou won’t be participating in a swimsuit competition in Miss Africa USA, which, she says, makes her father very happy.
“My dad was a little mad at first when he heard about me competing in this competition,” Kakou remembers. “So I had to call him, at first, and reassure him that there wasn't even a swimsuit competition in the pageant. He's very protective of me. But this pageant is a scholarship pageant. And I think he's proud of me that I'm doing this now.
“I was locked in home until I was 18. I thought I was going to become a nun,” Kakou adds with a laugh. “Seriously. When I came to the U.S., my friends told me that I needed to put myself out there more — especially with the non-profits and the charities I'm working for. People need to know you, they said. That's how the world works. Yes, you have good ideas and yes, you have a good heart, but people need to know about what you're doing.”
Kakou recently graduated with her associate degree in liberal arts science and she will be pursuing her industrial engineering degree at UW-Platteville and plans on continuing on to obtain her MBA. She is currently on the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and a sorority member and was nominated Tutor of the Year 2012 for Madison College. She was also president of the African Student Association.
Kakou was born and raised in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and is the fifth in a family of 10 children. Growing up within a large family and limited resources, she was urged to acquire a deep sense of responsibility at a tender age and, most importantly, the value of sharing with others for a common benefit.
“Education has always been a very valuable thing for me,” Kakou says. “Growing up, my father was really hard on us. He was like, 'You know, you have nothing in the world. You come from Africa where we don't have opportunity. The only thing we have for you is school. If you want to get somewhere in life, you have to excel in school.'”
Her parents, siblings, and the community in which she grew up inspired her to always reach for excellence by remaining grounded, well-rounded, accountable, helpful, devoted, and consistent.
“I've always been involved in as many things as I could from a young age,” she remembers. “I saw my mom cooking for the whole building where I lived and she would go give food to everybody. My dad was one of the leaders of our church and he would have people over and feed them. I think seeing my parents sharing and giving growing up became part of my personality. I feel that my happiness is also linked to seeing other people happy. ”
Responsibility came early for a young Kakou. In fact, her mother let me manage her small restaurant business at age 14.
“My mom had small restaurants outside of her work. I think I got a lot of courage from my mom,” she says. “When I was 14, she decided that I would run one of her restaurants. That's when she realized that I was a very responsible kid.”
Kakou followed that with many other professional and entrepreneurial experiences such as being the dedicated manager of a gas station, assistant in direction for a movie-making company, and supervisor in her campus’s entertainment center.
“Today, I look back at what I did at age 14 and I'm like, 'Wow!' But I think that's why I'm so confident in initiating things and trying new things,”she says.
One of the things that Kakou has initiated is the formation of the African International Students Aid Foundation (AISAF) which is designed to help struggling African students abroad in the United States.
Innumerable African students in search of a better education end up having financial difficulties while pursuing their studies. Many of them are left with the options of remaining in the U.S. illegally or returning home without finishing their degree and fulfilling the very reason for which they had to leave the continent.
“When I came to the U.S., I realized how expensive education was here and how a lot of students from Africa were struggling to go to school,” Kakou says. “A lot of my friends were dropping out of school. I felt that Africa depends on intellectuals and they depend on us going to school. This can't be. Something has to be done about it.”
It is a very frustrating and critical situation, which Kakou had observed and would soon experience herself. “In 2011, I lost my sponsorship because of the war we had [back home], she says. “When you live the situation, you know how bad it is. It was hard. I lost my funding and I didn't know what to do. If you drop out of school here, then you become illegal. So, I said, 'This can't be. Something has to be done about it.'”
AISAF helps those students in the United States who are struggling by giving them the support that they need. The hope is for AISAF to spread all over the western world where there is a huge affluence of African students.
“We want to provide financial support, but also emotional support. So we work with psychologists, counselors, immigration officers, and lawyers who want to help out. Many African students who come here are all alone in a strange land. It's very hard. People feel alone. A lot of people can relate to that situation,” she says. “Miss Africa USA will really be an amazing opportunity to talk about AISAF.... so let's see what we can do.”
Kakou will be making a presentation on AISAF at the Miss Africa USA this weekend during the first day of the competition. “Miss Africa USA 2013 is a platform not only for me to give voice to this issue but to expose and raise public awareness on the dilemma of African students in diaspora and channel mediators to targeted authorities, so that change can be made,” she says.
In a few days, we will know if Kakou has obtained her immediate goal of winning the Miss Africa USA Pageant, but win or lose, she already feels like she's been successful in getting the word out about her non-profit organization and letting people know about the plight of African students in the United States. Kakou is beginning to think about the long term.
“My long-term plans are to finish school and get on with the next stage of my life. Maybe work for a non-profit. I see myself both in the United States and the Ivory Coast. I am a traveler — I love to travel. I would love to have a house both here and there. That's my dream. To be able to go back and forth.
But you never know what's going to happen in the future. My plan that I had when I was younger has already changed a little today and it could change a little tomorrow. I'm trying not to say, 'It's this or nothing.' You have to be flexible in life.
“I pray that AISAF grows and is something that is really meaningful. I'm so excited to talk about it at Miss Africa USA and to meet all of these people and to see where my path goes from there.”