(Photo: Courtesy of Sisonke Msimang and Hanna Barczyk for NPR)
When you ask a former prom queen where she’s from, this is not the answer you’d expect:
“I am South African but was born as a child of exiles.”
So it’s no surprise that Sisonke Msimang ruled a prom that wasn’t particularly traditional either. The year was 1992, and she was a senior at the International School of Kenya, nestled among the coffee plantations of Nairobi. Having a prom was not (and is still not) common in Kenya. But her school, because it has an American curriculum and follows an American calendar, encourages other American customs.
That’s why, Msimang says, they all took the SATs. And they all stressed about finding a date to the final dance before graduation.
“It was a thing that you had to go with someone, unlike other school dances,” says Msimang, who had seen enough bootlegged VHS tapes of Molly Ringwald movies to understand the gravity of this decision. Given her track record of unrequited love, Msimang opted to go just as friends with her Ghanaian buddy Hugh. “I remember being relieved when I decided this was how it was going to be,” she says.
The other critical task before prom? Figuring out what to wear. “Everyone else had gone with taffeta and shiny stuff,” Msimang says. That wasn’t her style.
Instead — just like Ringwald’s character in the teen classic Pretty in Pink — Msimang designed her own look.
The top had “these big puffed out shoulders,” Msimang says. (“I looked a bit like a butterfly,” she adds.) It cinched tight at the waist and then flared out over her hips. She paired that with a mini skirt and head wrap all done in the same fabric — a print from the popular Vlisco textile company. “This one had a pattern with red and brown twisted together,” Msimang describes.
No question the ensemble was over the top. Rather than resembling the dress in “Pretty in Pink,” it could have been a costume from the Eddie Murphy classic “Coming to America,” says Msimang, who also convinced Hugh to skip the tuxedo. He accompanied her in a light gray robe called a “boubou,” and a small matching hat.
The night of prom, they didn’t pose for any photos at her house before heading to the dance. Her parents weren’t really into that sort of thing, Msimang explains. At the time, her dad was the director of a humanitarian agency. But he was also a freedom fighter opposed to apartheid who had escaped South Africa at the age of 21, and then underwent military training in Russia. He’d met her mom — who was from Swaziland — in Zambia, and then they’d bounced around the globe in search of justice. So this was not exactly the most momentous occasion in family history.
There were no corsages or limos involved. There was no theme for the evening’s festivities. There was, however, a sit-down dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel followed by lots of dancing. Msimang doesn’t remember exactly, but she has a pretty good idea of what was playing: American R&B. LeVert’s “Casanova” would have gotten everyone on the dance floor, she says. Same with “Roses are Red” by the Mac Band and “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C+C Music Factory.
Sometime in the middle of the music, teachers passed out ballots for queen and king. Msimang never guessed she was in the running — she assumed the title would go to a gorgeous classmate who was “born to be prom queen,” she says.
So when the results were announced, and Msimang and Hugh were both ordained as royalty, she was surprised and flattered. And amused, too: “I wasn’t that girl.”
“I was the one who went full-on black nationalist when I went to college,” says Msimang, who graduated from Macalester in Minnesota, and is now a writer in Perth, Australia, focused on issues of inequality and gender.
What the win told Msimang was that her fellow students, who were a mix of kids from all over the continent, as well as the U.S., Canada and the U.K., appreciated that the couple had redefined the prom tradition in an African way.
It also showed that they weren’t taking this dance too seriously, Msimang adds.
She understands that in America, prom is supposed to be the defining experience of high school social life. For her classmates, the big event was their earlier trip to the Loita Forest, where they stayed in a Maasai community. “You lived in a boma [a traditional village with huts] for a week with cows and goats next to you. You sat by the fire and listened to their stories in a language you didn’t understand,” she says. It was frustrating and fascinating. To deal with their rush of emotions, the kids would meet secretly by the river.
Sounds like the premise of an amazing teen movie — even without Molly Ringwald.
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