IF I HAD CONTRACTED HIV/AIDS, I'D HAVE COME OUT PUBLICLY----DAMILOLA OTUBANJO, Sisi Oge of Lagos pageants in 2007
For Damilola Otubanjo, who emerged the first winner of Sisi Oge of Lagos pageants in 2007, her greatest headache is how to help the troubled souls, especially HIV/AIDS patients, in her society. In this interview with ADA DIKE, Otubanjo, a graduate of Physics/Electronics from the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, talks about her highly coveted crown, her pet project and many other interesting issues.
What is the difference between the Sisi Oge of Lagos pageant and other beauty contests?
The Sisi Oge of Lagos is a beauty pageant organised by Discovery magazine in conjunction with the Lagos State Ministry of Arts and Culture. The difference between the pageant and others is that Sisi Oge of Lagos promotes African cultures and the contestants don't wear bikinis on the stage during the contest. The costumes are strictly African. The crown is made of cowries and local beads, unlike the silver crowns Miss Nigeria and others wear. It tries to restore our lost values and bring our youths back to their origin in order for them to accept and appreciate African cultures.
How did you participate in the pageant?
I saw the poster of the Sisi Oge pageant somewhere, so I became interested in the show. Later, I bought the form, filled it and submitted it. As God would have it, I later emerged the Sisi Oge of Lagos in 2007. I wasn't the prettiest girl among the contestants, but I think there must be striking qualities that gave me an edge above others.
So, the judges saw it and gave me the crown. When I told my parents about the pageant, they accepted it with mixed feelings due to some of the things that contestants do during beauty pageants like revealing their bodies and so on; but they eventually supported me.
What has changed about you after your reign as the first Sisi Oge of Lagos?
Being the first Sisi Oge was quite an experience. It provided a platform to discover my hidden potentials. It afforded me an opportunity to determine what life must bring rather than waiting on what life presents to me. It's a position of leadership and I embraced it with both hands because I had to set the pace for others to follow. I think I did well with the opportunity I was given, though I am still striving towards perfection.
A lot of things have changed about me, but they have been positive things. I have learnt doggedness, I have learnt to be an independent person and I have learnt to be taking charge of my life and the situations I find myself in.
What is PinkDove, your pet project, all about?
The PinkDove Charitable Initiative is a Non-Governmental Organisation( NGO) I set up after my reign. It was developed from my pet project as a beauty queen and God has been sustaining us all though. The PinkDOVE Charitable Initiative seeks to affect the human race with a strategic focus on areas and issues bordering on HIV/AIDS, the less-privileged, the physically challenged and other health-related issues by delivering a message of hope and eradication of limitations to stardom.
The Initiative has richly impacted people's lives and we have had several programmes since its inception in November 2008. We target youths and adults; and we organize feminine summits and seminars for secondary schools, including peer education training for willing participants. Above all, we do visitations to various homes and orphanages.
What are you doing at the moment, apart from your project?
I am currently observing my youth service in Lagos in addition to running the organization. It has been pretty tasking, but I have been managing both well. I intend to go for my Master's degree in Physics with Electronics after the youth service. I studied Physics/Electronics at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State. I was doing my industrial attachment as at the time I went for the Sisi Oge of Lagos pageant, so it afforded me enough time to handle my responsibilities as a student and a queen.
How have your friends been relating with you since you became the Sisi Oge of Lagos? Nothing has changed. My friends and relations still relate with me as before.
What was the prize you won?
I had an official vehicle and I was earning salary.
Could you tell me some of the challenges you encountered during your reign?
The crown came with a lot of challenges because many people were watching me to report what I was doing both in public and in secret. Now, as an ex-queen, I am careful about what I do, what I say and where I go to. Secondly, I was able to cope with my crown and academics because I tried not to sidetrack my education because I wanted to come out with a good result.
I used that platform to encourage students to live by my example; so, I made sure that I stood out as a role model. I live a moderate and exemplary life, as I tried to carry the image of a beauty queen. My project then sought to help people living with HIV/AIDS. We also tried to raise a beauty queen among the people with HIV/AIDS and it was called Miss Red Ribbon. We had contestants and they have a network in Abuja. We participated in their workshops and seminars; and so, many of them are willing to come after convincing them that they could still live their lives positively. I related with them because they are normal human beings. One could be HIV positive, but it does not change anything because it does not show on one's face or on one's dress sense. A lot of people are positive without knowing it because they have not gone for the test and people still relate with them normally. So, that is why I associate with them like normal human beings.
The pageant is tagged 'From stigma to stardom.' We want them to be involved in every social life. They should not be withdrawn or go into hibernation just because they are HIV positive. It does not have to be a beauty pageant alone; the media have to be involved. Let's bring the pretty ladies living with HIV/AIDS together for people to see. There are so many pretty ladies that are living with the condition and you would not know if they don't tell you.
What impact has Miss Red Ribbon had on young ladies?
The HIV/AIDS pandemic is predominant among the youths and that is why we are using pretty ladies to tell them that HIV/AIDS is real. Don't ever think that you can escape it if you are having unprotected sex.
If you escape it once, you might not be lucky next time. The pageant will make many people to live a cautious life. Secondly, those that have it will be accepted by the society as normal human beings to enable them live a normal life that is free of stigmatisation and more people will go for test to know their status. This measure can help to reduce or tackle the disease.
After two years of your reign, how have you been able to sustain your project?
The plan before I completed my reign was that the project would be handed over to the next Sisi Oge of Lagos after my reign. We are not looking at Lagos alone, but we are drawing contestants from the 36 states because it is a national project.
Have you done the HIV/AIDS test to know your status?
I did my test and I am HIV/AIDS negative. I would have been contesting as Miss Red Ribbon if I were positive.
When are you getting married?
As per marriage, I will keep you posted and I will also want to keep my relationship private. But it is going to be soon. I am still single, but not searching. I don't want to talk about my relationship. My man is God-fearing, humane and he respects me for who I am. He understands my position and he's not threatened by my standard.
Do you have a role model?
I respect and adore Oprah Winfrey and Iya Oge of Lagos, Chief (Mrs.) Opral Benson.
What are your other interests apart from the ones you mentioned above?
I like reaching out to people and those that are in need. I also like to affect the lives of the down trodden. With the special grace of God, I will see myself as a successful person depending on the lives I have touched and things I am able to contribute to the society.
Do you have a treasured possession?
I am brilliant, so I would say that my brain is my treasured possession.
What's your philosophy of life?
With God on my side, I will get whatever I aspire to achieve because I am a go-getter.
What is your advice for young ladies who aspire to be like you?
Ladies should appreciate our culture. Let's go back to our roots and origin and explore the beautiful things nature has prepared for us because it is beautiful. Africa is highly endowed and all we need to do is to explore it. Before we know it, we will be doing better than the Western world.