Some three years ago I went to an Exclusive Books Warehouse Sale where for R50 one could get a kilogram of books! Amongst the literary treats I picked up was Alek Wek’s autobiography Alek (Amistad). She was the supermodel I’d known about but didn’t really know much about her other than the pictures of her strutting her stuff on runways across the fashions capitals of the globe. It wasn’t until recently when I was going through my books that I decided to finally read it. In Alek, which she co-authored with Stephen P. Williams, Wek takes us into her birth in Wau in the southern Sudan that would eventually be South Sudan 34 years later. Born into a large Dinka family of 9 siblings, the “Wek Army” they used to called, Wek quickly dispels any myth that she lived a life of utter poverty. Theirs wasn’t an affluent living but she also says they weren’t poor. Her mother exhibited impressive entrepreneurial zeal that saw her sell her home-made brew in Wau and, briefly, also in the capital, Khartoum, something that was outlawed, while her “modern” father worked at the department of education in Wau. A strong sense of family and industriousness are some of the evident values and guiding principle that characterized Wek’s upbringing and they’d stand her in good stead later in life, whether it was her carrying out domestic chores,looking after nephews and nieces or being sent to relatives in capital so she may receive medical attention for proriasis, a skin condition which blighted her in her well into her early teens. Without playing the victim or seeking self-pity she brings to bare the havoc and dislocation of life that was brought on by the seemingly endless civil wars of country that “has always been a violent land”, according to her elders. Even the newly founded South Sudan has wasted no time in carrying on that bloody tradition of war. One of the things that I liked most about the book is that it highlights just how similar a lot traditional customs are in many parts on the continent like when Wek’s mother had to stay in doors for a considerable time after giving birth or the sacrificing a beast in celebration of the arrival of a loved one after a long absence or how cattle, something Wek’s mother cherished greatly, are, or used to be, a sign of wealth.
Always maintaining a strong sense of self-worth and respect as she promised her mother she would, Wek mentions how she went on to break down barriers and perception of beauty and what it means to beautiful in a world that almost exclusively accepted blond and light skin as the measure of beauty . The Oscar winning actress, Lupita Nyong’o said this about Wek:”A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was.” Nyong’o further stated that “when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty”. Such has been the impact of Wek on a lot people, especially women, whether it was in Juba, Nairobi, New Delhi, London, Paris, Johannesburg, Lagos, Sao Paolo, New York, Milan, Colombo or Abidjan. Her emergence was an affirmation of beauty that had been overlooked.
Despite having walked for fashion power houses like Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel, Gucci,DKNY, Giorgio Armani, D&G and Ralph Lauren amongst many other, she still had to contend with harassment by immigration and airport officials for whom the idea of a globe-trotting, dark-skinned supermodel was hard to reconcile with reality, but she’d always taken it in her proud Dinka stride. It’s only through sheer endurance, sacrifice, hope and audacity for self-betterment that Wek got to where she is now.
With only 210 pages, I’d recommend this easy and insightful read to anyone. It’s a necessary documentary of the humble beginnings of an artist, entrepreneur, supermodel of the world and daughter of the soil about whom Oprah Winfrey once said: “When I was growing up, if you’d been on the cover of a magazine, I would have had a different concept of who I was”.