Contest to be Zimbabwe's most hideous

Winner turns his unsightly looks to his advantage while organisers seek a sponsor to take unique contest nationwide.

MARCH 2010, ZIMBABWE: Elmas Chiganda, Mr Ugly. Thulani Mpofu/The National
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BEITBRIDGE, ZIMBABWE // Beitbridge, a dusty town on Zimbabwe's southern border with South Africa, has crowned its ugliest man, in a unique pageant that attracted 15 contestants and thousands of spectators. Elmas Chiganda, 43, who participated in the inaugural contest last July but lost, was the clear favourite this time with his almost fearsome looks. In the end he won the Mr Ugly crown, outclassing even the man who beat him to it last year, Peter Chikomakoma.

Ugliness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Everything about Mr Chiganda, a traditional healer and polygamist with 10 children, is ugly. He does not walk, he lumbers; his smile is a grin. "I knew it," said Mr Chiganda, in his victory speech. "I am the ugliest man in town. I think I can even compete at national level. My looks have always been a subject of ridicule - I might be ugly, but I have a very good heart. A man has to be proud of how he looks. I am happy that I am the ugliest man around here."

For his efforts, and bad looks, Mr Chiganda received a cash prize of 1,500 rand (Dh750), which he said is so little that it discourages potential contestants. Last year's winner, Mr Chikomakoma, was given the same amount of money plus a goat and an axe. While he was chosen by a panel of judges, the audience thought Mr Chiganda should have won. The Mr Ugly pageant is Zimbabwe's only such event, launched in July last year. The contestants went on the ramp in three segments - day wear, business wear and evening wear.

"Even clothes cannot hide their looks. They are unique in the way they look. That is why we are celebrating the way they look," said Lovemore Chonzi, the master of ceremonies, drawing a round of laughter from the audience. Growing up in Mberengwa, 200km north of Beitbridge, Mr Chiganda got used to taunts early on in his life, before developing what he says was a defence mechanism. "People used to call me all sorts of names until I came to terms with it. My peers would giggle at me every time. They called me Ruma," he said, referring to any wild animal capable of attacking and eating humans.

"But I would beat anyone who laughed at me or called me names. Now I don't care. I am proud of myself." Dominic Gwatirisa, the Beitbridge-based founder of the competition, said the contest was motivated by the desire to celebrate the appearance of the aspirants so as to instill confidence in them. "Most pageants in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, involve women and the definition of beauty from a western point of view," Mr Gwatirisa said.

"With Mr Ugly we want men to be proud of themselves, whatever way they look. You must not be ashamed of yourself if you are ugly because that is what God wanted. You are like everyone else. In this competition, we do not just look for the bad looks, but also the heart." Mr Gwatirisa compared the Mr Ugly pageant with another unique Zimbabwean contest - Miss Big Mafotofoto, which its organisers say celebrates African notions of beauty. Participants in the Miss Big competition have to be pretty as in any conventional beauty contest, but weigh more than 100 kg, as opposed to the largely western ideal of tall and slim women.

Generally, ugly men have trouble in their love lives. Not super dad Chiganda. "I am happily married to two wives," he said. "I must say they really love me because I am an ugly man of modest means. They have maintained their love for me regardless. You see, what they love is not money or the good looks because I do not have either. They just love me as a person. It gives me happiness that I also have a big family; each of my wives has five children."

Although last year's event left some people disgruntled, this time most of the audience felt Mr Chiganda deserved the title. "I have never seen such an ugly creature," said Susan Chikore, of Dulibadzimu suburb in Beitbridge. "Fine, everyone was very ugly out there, but Elmas was the ugliest. I will die if a man like him proposes love to me." Mr Gwatirisa said both editions of the pageant have been highly successful. Based on that success, he plans to make it a national event probably next year, subject to sponsorship being available.

"We are sponsoring this event on our own, but if we make it a national event, we would need more funds. "But with the interest I have seen, I hope there would be a buy-in from sponsors. There are hundreds of exceptionally ugly men around the country and we want them to come out and compete."