This article is a serialisation of the book The Journey of Women Trailblazers in Kenya.
In 2003, Ajuma Nasenyana was about to board a plane to Sweden where she intended to pursue a career in athletics when she was persuaded by Lyndsey McIntyre of Surazuri Modelling Agency to take a shot at a modelling career instead.
Today, Nasenyana is the one of very few Kenyan models to have walked on international runways alongside supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek.
Born in Lodwar, Turkana County, Nasenyana’s modelling career began when she had just completed her education at the prestigious Greensteds International School, which she had attended courtesy of Women’s Centre, an NGO run by her mother in Lodwar.
At school, she was described as a ‘bright, confident tomboy who excelled in athletics’.
After school, she went into training for 400 metre and 800 metre-track running, and in 2002 she won the World Junior Championship National Trials and came third in the World Championship National trials.
She then went on to participate in the Miss Tourism beauty pageant in 2003 and was crowned Miss Nairobi. It was here that she was first scouted by McIntyre, who was struck by her slim, well-toned features and lithe structure.
When Gamma Photo Agency came to Kenya to do a story on McIntyre’s work as a scout model, they became interested in Nasenyana and arranged a meeting with her at the airport as she was about to leave for Sweden.
They convinced her to go back to Lodwar for a photo shoot with them, and her story later ran in Gala, a French magazine.
The pictures taken were compiled into a portfolio and presented to Ford Models, an international modelling agency based in the United States, which then entered her in Ford’s Supermodel of the World competition.
During the finals the following year, Nasenyana won the $50,000 (Ksh5 million) finalist’s prize, making history by becoming the first black model to win in an international contest that did not focus on black models only.
That same year, she won €6,000 for being voted Best Model during the Spanish Fashion Week.
Under McIntyre’s guidance, Nasenyana soon signed with agencies in London, Austria, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Canada and Sweden.
She participated in New York Fashion week for designers such as Baby Phat and Carlos Mienes before traveling to Milan to model for fashion houses such as Ungaro during the Italian Fashion Week.
She then went to Paris during the winter show season where British designer Vivienne Westwood appointed her the lead model in her show.
Since then, Nasenyana has made a name for herself in the world of fashion and modelling, and has participated in shows all over the world and hundreds of magazine photo shoots.
In August 2005, she was voted among the world’s 10 most beautiful women by Complex, an American magazine. In 2012, she was named African Fashion Week Model of the Year.
In 2010, after the birth of her son, Nasenyana set up base in Nairobi because she wanted him to have a Kenyan upbringing.
She currently works from Nairobi and travels out of the country for contract jobs.
Besides modelling, Nasenyana has acted as a spokesperson for black models who often face discrimination within the industry.
European standards of beauty place a lot of pressure on black models and black women in general, thereby causing a rise in practices such as skin bleaching, which is common in Kenya.
She is vocal in her campaign against skin bleaching and has expressed interest in launching a cosmetics and natural skin care line for dark-skinned women, hoping that her products would inspire people of African origin to embrace their skin, instead of attempting to alter it through artificial means.
She is also very critical of the influence the Western media has over Kenyans asserting that they are constantly being bombarded by magazines and advertisements that put fairer skin tones on a higher pedestal.
In 2013, Nasenyana teamed up with City Models Paris to open Africa’s first international model and casting agency, with an aim of putting African models on international runways.
Today, she is the founder and executive director of City Models Africa in Nairobi. She was encouraged to make this move by the potential she saw in Kenya.
The agency focuses on models for commercials rather than fashion because the industry in Kenya is underdeveloped.
Nasenyana urges aspiring models to be ready to embrace hard work and cope with rejection.
She encourages them, as well as other young women, not to give up but to focus on their goals and take one step at a time. She also warns that modelling is not easy; she herself almost quit in 2004 to go back to athletics.