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Beyond the runway – meet Ascah Achieng

Ascah Achieng, is using her Miss Teen Homa Bay County crown as a stepping-stone to advance the fight against teenage pregnancy and HIV/Aids; two issues that tagged close to her heart

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Brimming with energy, Ascah Achieng walked into a lakeshore hotel in Homa Bay county as a golden haze of sunrise hit the expanse waters of Lake Victoria, on an early morning in December last year.

She was a girl on mission. Her eyes were set on winning a beauty pageant contest that would be taking place at 9am, slightly an hour after her arrival. Scanning the runway that she would soon strut on, she nervously waited for the other 15 contestants of Miss Teen Homa Bay with whom she would battle it out.

Girl on a mission

“I was anxious and scared of the crowd that had gathered to watch the pageant. It would also be the first time I would be walking in heels and so, I arrived early to rehearse,” says the 19-year-old.

At the end of the pageant, Achieng bagged the coveted crown. But beyond relishing the feeling of winning, the crown held greater significance for her. It was a stepping-stone to advance the fight against teenage pregnancy and HIV/Aids; two issues that tagged close to her heart.

Ascah grew up at Kendu Bay, a small town along the shores of Lake Victoria—a place she would often take long walks along the beach and where many people relied on fishing as a source of livelihood. From a young age, it devastated her to see many people in the area succumb to HIV/Aids and many girls drop out of school owing to teenage pregnancies.

Homa Bay county bears the largest brunt of the HIV/Aids scourge in Kenya. The county has an HIV/Aids prevalence of 26 per cent, the highest in the country.  At least one in every three girls in Homa Bay gets impregnated in her teenage years. At 33 per cent, the county has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the country.

“I think lack of awareness contributed to the high HIV/Aids in the area. Young girls, especially, are ignorant of the consequences of their actions,” she says.

Growing up as an only child under the care of her single mother, a beautician, and grandmother, Ascah had access to constant advice on how to avoid the two pitfalls that her peers fell into.

“I remember seeing many of my classmates drop out of school due to early pregnancy. “When I was in Class Eight for instance, three of my classmates dropped out of school just before we sat for our final exams in 2013,” she says. 

The petite and tall young girl also harboured an ambition to become a model from a young age. “I watched many modelling programmes on television. I enjoyed looking at the models and daydreaming.

Often, I would imitate them by creating an imaginary runway in the house and strut along it,” she says. When she completed her primary education at Muslim Primary school, Kendu bay and joined Mirogi Girls in the same area for her high school education, the trend of early pregnancies and high rates of HIV/Aids persisted.

Platform

Coming across an advertisement for Miss teen Homa Bay County, a pageant organised by the Ministry of Tourism in her county last year created impetus to pursuing two of her childhood ambitions; modeling and positively impacting her community.

Ascah who had just completed her secondary education at the time seized the opportunity. “The theme of the pageant revolved around fighting teenage pregnancies, early marriages and raising awareness on HIV/Aids. It was perfect platform for me to make a difference in my county,” she says.

Ascah who draws a lot of her inspiration from her aunt who models in Germany has used her crown to sensitise youths in the county on the importance of abstinence.

“It’s important that those who feel they cannot abstain engage in protected sex,” she says. She uses forums such as sports tournaments organised by local leaders to spread the message.

Helping the vulnerable children in the community is another mission Ascah who plans to persue a course in cabin crew management has undertaken. “Last December, Mr Teen Homa Bay and I worked on a project to help vulnerable children in the county. 

We distributed clothes, food and books to support them in school,” she adds. She has been working with a local Member of Parliament who runs a similar project.

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