By Wayua Muli
Ajuma Nasenyana, 26, is stunning to look at, especially when she is at work. It’s an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning at the photo shoot for her cover, and a small crowd of admirers has gathered to watch her pout, flounce and flirt with the camera.
“She’s a complete natural,” says stylist and shoot director Grace Makosewe. “I don’t need to tell her what to do to get the right pose. She just puts on the dress and does it.” Indeed, given the natural grace with which she takes to high fashion, it is difficult to believe that once upon a time, Ajuma’s greatest ambition was to be an Olympic medal-winning runner. Or that she grew up in Turkana. Or that she is, in fact, quite the tomboy.
“Yes, I am a tomboy,” she laughs later on, during our interview. For this, she has abandoned the high-glam wardrobe and come dressed in a simple black vest, skinny jeans and strappy flat sandals. Apart from a slick of lip balm and a cap, there is nothing there that says more than it should about her supermodel day job.
“I don’t shape my eyebrows or shave my legs …” she laughs, likely thinking about all the misconceptions people have about models being creatures of vanity. “In the morning, the soap I use for my face is the soap that I use for my legs. But I like Vaseline. I always use that. That and Cocoa Butter Lotion. So I am naturally like this.”
“Naturally like this” translates as a 5ft, 10in dark-skinned, flawless beauty with almond-shaped eyes and pillow lips that make bright colours pop against her skin tone. Her hair is short and natural – more Alek Wek than Naomi Campbell – and tellingly, not needing a comb to look coiffed. And her perfect teeth are either the result of lots of dental care, or great genetics.
She has been on runways for Victoria’s Secret, Alexis Mabille and Martin Grant. She has opened for Vivienne Westwood
- twice – and been the “wedding dress” (the lead model) for her once. Ajuma has even had a non-speaking cameo spot in the first Sex and the City movie, where she is prominently featured strutting her stuff in front of Carrie and the girls. It is rather difficult to imagine that the sensual femininity she displays on stage is an act; it seems an essential part of her entire persona.
But perhaps this should not be surprising: everything about Ajuma is a contradiction of sorts.
We’ll start with her childhood, which has become a bit of a mythical tale of poverty, goat-herding and bare-foot running to and from school. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Ajuma is well aware of the misconceptions about her upbringing. “I spent my first nine years in Lodwar,” she says of her childhood. Her early years were spent with her mother and grandmother, and she started school there. Then her mother met a Swedish family who were interested in helping Ajuma’s mother run an NGO for women, and Ajuma’s fortunes changed.
Her mother had set up the NGO – a women’s community project that only employs women in an effort to make them financially independent – with nothing but a few mud ovens that the women built, and would bake bread in. “They used to walk around the area selling bread in the village. Now the NGO has grown, and they own a really nice tourist lodge called the Nawoitorong’ Women’s Centre. It is very nice,” Ajuma says proudly.
The Swedish family not only helped Ajuma’s mother finance the NGO, but they also took over Ajuma’s education and whisked her off to Greenacres, a fancy GCE-system school in Limuru, for her early years of education.
Ajuma remembers being a precocious child while there. “I didn’t speak English but I caught up quick,” she says. “I was a good sports person, and I think that’s why a lot of people liked me. I was good in any game. I was also very outgoing and very loud.” She eventually settled for running, which was to later play a big, important role in her life – but more on that later. Because in the meantime, Ajuma had graduated and moved on to the even fancier Greensteds School in Nakuru, where she continued her noisy, sporty life.
It was while she was here that she met celebrated runner Paul Ereng’, who was running a training camp – the High Performance Training Centre – for young athletes. Attracted to her potential in the middle-distance races, he took her on, grooming her to take her place on the national team at the upcoming 2004 Olympics. She joined after leaving school in 2002. “I was in the training camp alongside Ezekiel Kemboi and Janeth Jepkosgei – we’re friends. We talk,” she says of the 800m Olympic silver medallist.
But – and this is crucial – her heart was not in a running career. “I used to push myself to do it because I was good at it, but not because I really wanted to do it.” Her biggest fantasy, at the time, was to take part in Africa’s iconic model search, M-Net’s Face of Africa competition. “All my life I had been told that I should model,” she says. It’s not really surprising, given her physique and skin tone. “So I was fascinated by the Face of Africa model search,” she says.
Ajuma had grown up in FOA’s hey-day, when the very first black model search unveiled Oluchi Onweagba, who went on to become a superstar. Watching it on television and reading about it in the papers just like many other girls at the time, she remembers wanting to enter this particular model hunt. But as luck would have it, by the time she was eligible to enter, title sponsors M-Net had inexplicably put the event on hold – there would be no Face of Africa competition for Ajuma.
As it turned out, it did not matter. Her life revolved around her running, and such was her talent in the middle-distance races that she was offered a university scholarship in the US.
And then, when she turned 19, fate staged an intervention, and her life went off on a different tangent. It was in early 2003 when it happened. A Swedish geologist – who she refuses to name – asked her to be his guide while he went prospecting for precious stones in Lodwar. They were driving from Lodwar to Lokichoggio when bandits struck and shot at their car. “I survived with some injuries, but my friend was killed. We had grown up together. We were family friends.” It was his family that was helping her mother set up the NGO.
Unable to train and emotionally battered by the shooting, another friend of hers -Cedric Simonet, who lived in Nairobi – suggested that she come to Nairobi to recuperate. He flew her in for her first-ever extensive stay in the city, and put her up at his house. But it was not long before she was looking for something to do.
Meanwhile, pageant fever was sweeping the country. The Miss World-Kenya competition had been revived and was enjoying a resurgence in popularity; a number of entrepreneurs had emerged to start or franchise other pageant titles – Miss India, Miss Malaika, Miss Universe… and among them was Alice Kamunge, owner of Vera Beauty College, who took on the Miss Tourism franchise.
With nothing else to do, a burning ambition to participate in just one modelling event and no FOA in the picture, Ajuma entered … and won the Miss Nairobi title which, on the scale of things, was neither here nor there.
But there was one person watching her performance – model scout Lyndsey Mclntyre – who was impressed and signed her on to her agency, Surazuri Models. Later, Ajuma would meet Jan Malan, the South African man responsible for birthing the FOA concept. “When he saw me he said, ‘I wish you had entered the FOA competition!’” Ajuma remembers. “He was like, ‘You would have won!’”
In any case, Lyndsey was scouting for models for the newly-launched Ford Supermodel Search, and thought Ajuma was just the ticket.
Ajuma entered, giving her an opportunity to participate in the Ford Supermodel Search finals the next year. Her chances of winning a modelling contract were very, very high, but to do that, she had to move to Europe to build her portfolio.
So there she was, with two options – one, to take up the sports scholarship in the US, and the other to take up modelling in Europe. Ajuma followed her heart – literally.
When she was 15, Ajuma had travelled to Uganda on holiday where she met the love of her life, Gustav, a Swedish student. He was three years older than her, and the chemistry between them was evident. Their friendship developed into a romance, and in 2003 after the shooting incident, he proposed. “He decided enough was enough, and that life was too short to wait any longer, so he proposed,” she says. And in 2003, when Ajuma met her fork in the road, she took the one that would have her closer to her fiance who lived in Sweden at the time. In 2004, Ajuma packed her bags and headed off to Paris.
Her rise and rise since has been phenomenal. She has modelled for Elle and Dazed and Confused magazines, and designers such as Issey Miyake, Baby Phat and lingerie company Victoria’s Secret. She is currently Vivienne Westwood’s muse. She has modelled around the world, and lists Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and Miami as her favourite places to work and visit.
But it does get lonely on the road, she says. “Sometimes you are there in this really beautiful place, with no one but you and the (photography, hair and make-up) crew. And you wish you were there with someone special to share it with,” she reflects.
That “someone special” is Gustav who is now a computer technician with his own firm, and is currently on paternity leave, taking care of their 10-month-old baby Elliot. He has stood by Ajuma all this time. “We go through our ups and downs,” Ajuma says of their relationship. “But that’s how you learn and grow together, and strengthen your relationship.” She says he is extremely supportive of her career.
“I fell in love with the fact that he is kind to everybody. That is so attractive. And he is a good father. He changes diapers and everything. When he walks into the room Elliot starts panting like a puppy because he is so happy to see Gustav. And Elliot has a lot of energy and loves to play. He can wear you out. but Gustav can keep up with him.”
The question that should be on your mind right about now, is how he copes with being with one of the world’s most beautiful women. “It was hard at first,” Ajuma says. “He came with me for my first shoot, and I was wearing a bikini. He got kicked out,” she laughs. Unable to bear anyone touching her while she was wearing such skimpy clothes, Gustav threw a strop. “He was there, adjusting my clothes … the crew couldn’t take it any more. But it was because he didn’t want anyone to exploit me because I was still innocent and young.”
Gustav still has problems adjusting to some of her work. “Even now, when I show him some pictures, he says, ‘Ajuma that’s not you. You are not like that in real life.’ This is when I take pictures where, for example, I am smoking. But he understands that modelling is like acting. When I put on the clothes and I stand in front of the camera, I am playing a role.”
Ajuma’s pregnancy came at just the right time. “I was feeling broody,” she says. “Every time I talked to my friends in Kenya, I would hear how so-and-so is pregnant or has just given birth.” Among her close friends is Daisy Kiplagat who she went to school with, and who married musician Prezzo and gave birth to their child last year. Now, the only trace of the birth that took place in Sweden is a teeny tiny belly that is snapping into shape remarkably fast. Is this courtesy of some special secret celebrity fitness regime? “I don’t work out,” says Ajuma. “I think I am lucky that my metabolism is still high from all my years of playing sports and running.”
For Elliot, Ajuma is looking at making big changes to her life. “I want to move back to Kenya,” says the New York-based model. “Here, the weather is good, and we can be close to my family. I want him to know his grandmother, and to learn Swahili and Turkana. I can get a nice house with a garden for him to play with, which is too expensive to do in New York.”
But crucially, Ajuma is now at the stage where her work is so well-known on the fashion circuit that she doesn’t need to attend auditions any more. “My agency in New York says that I can live wherever I want to now. When a designer calls me up specifically for a job, I can fly there and fly back,” she says, referencing a time in December when she flew from her holiday in Nairobi to New York for a day’s shoot. “I spent more time on the plane flying to and from (the shoot) than I did at the job,” she laughs.
She makes sure to visit Lodwar at least once a year. “When I am there I am just a regular Turkana girl. When I went there with Elliot last year I was pampered! I like Lodwar because it is so quiet. I can relax and just be free.”
In contrast, life in New York is much more hectic, what with the numerous jobs that she has to attend to.
“Sometimes you have so many shows that you don’t even have time to clean your apartment because you are going from catwalk to location shoot. The only time you spend time in your house is when you are packing.” But there are perks -such as the celebrity parties she gets to attend and the free swag from top notch designers.
“If you wear something on the catwalk and you really like it, you can ask the designer and they will give it to you. Sometimes the clothes you wear were made specifically for your body, so no one else can really wear them. After the show they just send the clothes to your agency.”
Ajuma is also one of those celebrities who can walk into any upmarket restaurant in New York and get a free meal. But she is not enamoured of the celebrity lifestyle at all. “It’s just marketing for the restaurants and celebrities who invite us to their parties. They get to say that so-and-so was there. At the end of the day, it’s like a job – except I am not getting paid for it,” she says.
Among the people who are proud of her achievements are her mother, who keeps every copy of every magazine that she has been in. And, surprisingly, Paul Ereng’. “He called me in New York during the 2004 Olympics,” she remembers. Isabella Ochichi had just won a silver medal in the 1500m race, and former team-mate Kemboi had bagged a gold in his 3000m steeplechase event. “He was so proud,” she says. “He kept saying, ‘Ajuma that should have been you! You
would have won if you were here!’ And then he called me back a few minutes later and said. ‘But you’re still doing good as a model’.”
All in all, Ajuma has not forgotten her roots. One of the things she is contemplating doing is studying medicine or taking up the HIV/ Aids cause to support women in Turkana who, she says, still suffer from a lack of education and independence, and are at the mercy of their husbands. And she would love to play field hockey once again.
She would also like to start an all-natural line of cosmetics for women of ethnic origin. “I see all these products with all of this bleach, and it damages people’s skin,” she says. “I want to do a line of products with just natural ingredients.” This, coming from a girl who was once made fun of because of her dark colour.
But for now, Ajuma is content to put her big plans on hold and enjoy what is undoubtedly a blessed life with her fiance and her son.