By Shirley Genga
She is a catwalk goddess: Tall and dark with striking facial features that include high cheekbones and enviable pillow lips. Combined with gracefulness and a personality that comes alive on camera, Ajuma Nasenyana has gone on to conquer international catwalks, with everything from Paris to New York to Milan to London under her belt. Yet Ajuma says she has not always been confident about her beauty.
As a young girl, Ajuma was often teased for her dark skin, and for a long time she struggled with loving herself.
“Growing up, I often felt like the ugly duckling, simply because I did not fit into the mould of what society defines beauty by. The issue of skin colour is one of those things that no one likes to talk about, yet so many women and young girls suffer because of it. And as a result end up exposing themselves to dangerous bleaching products, all in the name of beauty,” she says.
Ajuma is involved in a campaign to create awareness about the harmful effects of bleaching products.
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“I’m in the process of shooting a documentary to highlight the rampancy and negative effects of skin bleaching. I want young girls and women in general to feel beautiful no matter their skin tone or colour. Although I still struggle with my skin colour, at least I was lucky enough to find an environment that accepted me. But what about other women and young girls who do not realise they are beautiful no matter their skin colour? Somebody has to do something,” she says.
Ajuma has taken it upon herself to speak for those who cannot that is why she believes her campaign is important.
She would also like to start an all-natural line of cosmetics for women of ethnic origin.
“I want to do a line of products made of exclusively natural ingredients in the very near future. I’m also currently involved in scouting and mentoring potential next top models. So far, I have three girls from Turkana that I’m mentoring between the ages of 16-20. I have been in the industry long enough to know what the international market wants. While at it, I’m working with Dr Precious Motsepe of South Africa and our dream is to open a modelling agency next year. It will be a gateway for African models to enter into the industry,” she explains.
?? Although she is involved in a number of projects, at the age of 28, Ajuma is privileged to still be modelling even though the general lifespan of a model usually comes to an end by the age of 25; a true testament of her versatility and status as an iconic model.
“My time in the international modelling atmosphere has been a whirlwind experience. I have been doing it since 2004 and I have grown and learnt a lot. You really grow into it, but now I am slowing down a little and trying to implant myself back into Nairobi. I feel that this is the right place for my son Elliot to grow up. I want him to get the great values I grew up with,” she explains.
?? It means a lot of travelling back and forth between here and New York where her modelling agency is, but Ajuma says it is all worth it if her son can get a good upbringing.
?Ajuma has an impressive modelling portfolio. She has been featured in fashion editorials for international magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Arise, Harpers Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Pop and Ebony.
She has also graced catwalks for international designers like Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs, Jean Paul Gautier, Girgio Armani, Salvatore Ferregamo, Victoria Secrets, Lactose, Issey Miyake and H&M. Her most memorable experience was being chosen to be a Victoria Secrets model back in 2006.
“It was one of those mind-blowing experiences. We had private jets and a whole hotel booked for us. Also, we had personal bodyguards assigned to us and we got to model in front of celebrities like Leornado Dicaprio, Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake,” she says.
When I ask her how she keeps herself grounded, she answers with a smile: “I’m humbled by the many opportunities I have gotten in my life, but the fame, the celebrity status and the invitations to exclusive parties that comes with it, are nice and fun, but all empty. It is glitter with no substance, because when it is over you go back to your old life. I’m glad to have my husband and son to come home to.”
Ajuma met her husband 12 years ago. He was 17 and she was 15.
“I guess I married my first love. We have been through ups and downs and have hurt each other on many occasions. Basically, we have gone through all the stages of love and have come back full circle, even stronger than before. He is called Gustav Ericsson; he is charming, funny, but also grounded and is my rock,” she says
??Together with her two-year-old son Elliot, Ajuma and her husband have easily settled into Nairobi life. And while she is involved with modelling and other projects, her husband Gustav is a computer geek and currently owns a company called Mudundo Africa.
?Ajuma was born in Lodwar, Turkana and was raised by a single mother. She is the first born in a family of three girls. She went to a Turkana boarding school for the first six years of her school life.
Her mother later met a Swedish family who were interested in helping her run an NGO for women. Ajuma’s mother had set up the NGO — a women’s community project that empowers women financially. The NGO has grown and now owns a tourist lodge called the Nawoitorong’ Women’s Centre.
The Swedish family not only helped Ajuma’s mother finance the NGO, but they also adopted Ajuma and took over her education.
?“I was moved to Greenacres School, a GCE-system school in Limuru and later Greensteds School in Nakuru. I was quite the tomboy growing up and I was active in sports. It was while in high school that I met celebrated runner Paul Ereng. He was running a training camp — the High Performance Training Centre — for young athletes. He saw my potential in middle-distance races and I joined the training camp after leaving school in 2002,” she says.
Although she was good at running, her heart was not in it and that was what drove her to try out for Miss Tourism in 2003, at which she was crowned Miss Nairobi. It is here that Lyndsey McIntyre of Surazuri Modelling Agency noticed her and proceeded to sign her on as a model and her modelling career immediately took off.
Ajuma is currently involved with Festival for African Fashion and Arts (Fafa), which was set-up in 2008 during the post-election violence in Kenya.
“When I learnt about what Fafa was all about, I knew I had to be involved. It is a peace initiative whose aim is to change perceptions of other community’s by exploring and bridging cultures through fashion, art and music. Fashion for Peace is an annual event that was born from the belief that positive change can come when we stop focusing on the negative and encourage the positive. Fafa held its annual fashion event on November 17, providing emerging designers with a platform to showcase their work. I have been involved in scouting for models, training on catwalk choreography and in making this year’s event as professional as possible,” she says
??Work and no play makes jack a dull boy, and even though Ajuma’s plate is full with her many roles that include; being a mother, wife, model, entrepreneur and mentor, she always makes time to chill with her friends and family.
“I love hanging out with friends. I have not always had my friends and family around, so it’s nice to be home and to be able to spend time with them.