ANCHORAGE — On a recent Saturday afternoon, 15 teenage girls lined up on a stage in the Northway Mall with the flags of their homelands: Togo. Nigeria. Ethiopia. Ghana. Sudan.
They were competing to become the first-ever Miss Africa Alaska -- the pageant queen of a growing community of immigrants making their home in Anchorage.
For the talent portion, the girls sang and performed traditional dances. They modeled riotously colorful dresses and polychrome head wraps as their relatives and friends took cellphone videos. Some were born in refugee camps in East Africa. Others were born at Providence Hospital in the U-Med district.
The winner was a statuesque South Sudanese 13-year-old named Nyajuok Kueth. With a wide grin and gold hoop earrings, she talked about wanting to collect warm winter clothes for the needy. She received a crown, a sash and a bouquet of flowers folded from zebra-print paper.
The pageant was billed as the first “All-African” event in the city, bringing together people from every corner of a continent as vast as it is diverse, home to more than one billion people but until recently the origin of only a tiny fraction of Anchorage’s immigrant population.
Delphine Atu-Tetuh, the event’s organizer, is one of them.
Born in the West African nation of Cameroon, she won a visa lottery to move to the United States when she was 20. She settled first in Minnesota. She moved to Anchorage a decade ago for nursing classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage, intending to stay just a short time and hoping to avoid winter.
But she found she felt surprisingly at home Alaska: the green mountains and small, tight-knit communities reminded her of Cameroon. Atu-Tetuh grew up in a city that attracted many migrants from villages still tightly tied to the traditions and family of their rural homes. The same was true for Anchorage, she said -- people lived in apartment buildings but still considered their true homes to be villages where they hunted and fished on the same land their ancestors had.
“To me, it looks like Africa here,” she said.
At the time there were maybe 100 or 200 Africans in Anchorage, Atu-Tetuh estimates, and almost nowhere to buy West African staples such as palm oil or plantains.
In 10 years, a lot has changed.
Atu-Tetuh earned her nursing credentials, had two children and now works the night shift as a nurse at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. She’s been home a few times -- a journey of at least $2,000 and many hours.
Plantains are now available at Walmart. A handful of Halal grocers stock palm oil. Churches hold services in the Nuer language spoken by many Sudanese.
Atu-Tetuh opened her own shop this year in the Northway Mall, selling Nigerian movies and special-occasion clothes made of the vibrant wax-cloth fabric popular in West Africa. She calls it My MotherLand And Me and hopes it will become a center for the African community in Anchorage and will eventually expand to a restaurant serving regional dishes.
The African population in Anchorage, according to Peter Igwacho, a psychologist by training also originally from Cameroon, is now likely somewhere between 3,000-5,000 people, though no formal count has been made. Growth has been driven both by refugee resettlement, which has brought Sudanese and Somali communities to the city, as well as migrants seeking economic opportunity and a quiet place to raise a family, Igwacho said. They often come from cities in the Lower 48 to join family members already living in Alaska.
Many don’t regard their stay in Alaska as temporary, Atu-Tetuh said.
“We are here to make Alaska our home.”
But making a home here involves trade-offs. Her 5-year-old son tells her he isn’t Cameroonian.
“He’s never been there,” she said.
A desire to unite the diverse African community and to celebrate shared values and traditions drove her decision to start the Miss Africa Alaska pageant, Atu-Teteh said. Parents want their children to be Alaskans but to root them in Africa.
“It’s about knowing who you are and where you are going,” she said.
Ifeoma Isolokwu moved to Alaska from Nigeria in 1997 to join her husband, a Nigerian who was studying at UAA.
Since then, she’s had four children, open an assisted-living home business and earn a master’s degree in social work. Though the family visits Nigeria, she said she’s felt disconnected from other Africans living in Anchorage.
So she was especially excited her eldest daughter Nne-Amaka Isolokwu, 14, took second place in the Miss Africa Alaska pageant.
Nne-Amaka, a soon-to-be freshman at South Anchorage High School, plays volleyball, is on the honor roll and in student government and recently walked the runway in a fashion show for a local boutique. She wants to be a doctor.
Alaska is where she’s lived for her entire life, but home life is infused with Nigeria. They eat traditional foods, sometimes substituting mashed potatoes for cassava when making the starchy West African staple food fufu. Her parents speak Igbo, one of the most commonly spoken dialects in Nigeria, in the home or when her mother wants to have a secret conversation with her in front of her friends. Nne-Amaka can understand it but not speak it herself.
She said she feels both Nigerian and Alaskan.
“I don’t have an accent but I still feel connected,” she said.
Meeting other teenagers from Africa was “cool,” she said. They’ll probably text and stay in touch.
“Most of them were born here too,” she shrugged.
At the pageant she wore four different outfits, including a traditional Igbo dress in pink and blue with a mermaid-style flare at the bottom.
At the after-party at the Native Heritage Center contestants and their families ate Nigerian-style donuts, meat pies from Gambia and a Cameroonian skewered meat with hot sauce. They danced together to African hits and American songs, too.
“It didn’t matter where they were from,” Atu-Tetuh said.
For her, it was a moment she’d dreamed about: people from all over the continent of her birth together, dancing under the fading Alaskan midnight sun of their adopted home.
“At the end of the night, I was crying,” she said.