Among pigs and cows, Miss Uganda contestants get lessons in farming

When the Miss Uganda contestants arrived at this sprawling farm outside Kampala, they quickly realized their high-heels would not be useful. So they put on gumboots and strutted awkwardly as they took turns learning how to milk a cow.

The scene is just what the organizers of Uganda's annual beauty pageant wanted: Beautiful women getting their hands dirty to promote farming.

This was not always the case. In part to give the pageant an extra edge after years of flagging popularity, the Miss Uganda Foundation sought a partnership with the military, which earlier this year was ordered by Uganda's long-serving president to promote agriculture.

The Miss Uganda contest, both parties agreed, would be a good platform to market agriculture among thousands of young Ugandans who abandon often-fertile farmland in their villages in order to try their luck in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, where jobs are increasingly few.

The beauty contest is to be held Saturday.

"Miss Uganda is a role model, especially to the young people. If Miss Uganda is rallying around agriculture, we expect a number of people to run and chase the dream," said Janet Nalugya, who coordinates projects for the Miss Uganda Foundation. "We also thought it was a way of helping to solve the problem of unemployment, and we thought agriculture would be a good way to start."

Many among the 20 Miss Uganda finalists — who range in age from 18 to 24 and include an orthopedist as well as a journalism student — grew up in Kampala and had never before been on a farm. Some said the experience has been fun, especially learning how to milk a cow.

"It felt so good. I was like, 'Oh my God! This is the milk I take every day," said 23-year-old Flavia Constance Ibyara, who recently graduated from law school.

Although there will be a catwalk on Oct. 25, when the winner will be announced, the contestants are being judged for the enthusiasm and creativity they showed on the government-owned farm. Each was tasked with producing a business plan that they might implement when the competition is over. One young woman said she wanted to use her brother's idle land near Kampala to grow corn. Another said she wanted to go into piggery.

"There is a lot of money in agriculture. This also was to say to the youth, 'Look, instead of having salons or boutiques, why not get involved in agriculture because agriculture also pays,'" said Kihura Nkuba, a Ugandan businessman who acts as chief strategist for a military program dubbed Operation Wealth Creation.

Despite the enthusiasm among many Ugandans over the new purpose for the Miss Uganda contest, the involvement of the military has rankled some who question if the military should be involved in such matters in this East African country of 36 million people.