Hawa Kamara made history today as the first woman from Sierra Leone to enter the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
Blood diamonds, civil war and then an Ebola crisis have all held the West African nation of 6.1 million people back in recent decades, but Sierra Leone is now experiencing economic growth and ready to show the world it’s open for business.
Kamara, who was crowned Miss West Africa in 2013, was born in Kono, famous for its diamond supply, and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.
CNN caught up with Kamara as she prepared for the contest which took place today in Manila, Philippines.
Congratulations on being Sierra Leone’s first entry in the Miss Universe competition. What does this mean for your country?
It is very important for Sierra Leone to be a part of Miss Universe. We have gone through so many tragedies in our country, like the Ebola virus, and civil war. People (from Sierra Leone) don’t really get opportunities … because (others) think we’re not capable or that, as a country, we’re not safe.
I think that’s one of the reasons we weren’t getting invited to things like this. This is an opportunity … for the world to learn more about my country.
I’m here to tell people Sierra Leone is open. Sierra Leone is safe. You can come any time.
How did you get involved in beauty pageants? Is it easy to compete in Sierra Leone?
Beauty pageants have been a passion of mine since I was in school. I watched them on TV, and dreamed that one day I’d be a part of this.
You have to stick to your dream, and my dream was to come to one of the biggest pageants in the world. It’s not something that’s easy — you have to compete a lot.
You’re obviously a pro, because you were crowned Miss West Africa in 2013. What’s your secret?
I’m just being myself. I’m a simple kind of girl … I’m comfortable the way I am. I just want to give the world me, and don’t want to look like somebody else. That has been one of my advantages.
You grew up in Freetown during the brutal civil war which ended in 2002. How did this affect you?
People knew nothing else about my country (other than the war). That’s affected us. When you say Sierra Leone, people think: “There is war in that country.” But that is long gone.
What was life like growing up?
I came from a big family and grew up with my mom. She did a lot to make me a strong person. She taught me how to appreciate what I have, and to go for what I want.
What should people visiting Sierra Leone expect?
When you come to Sierra Leone, firstly, expect a lot of smiles at the airport. A lot of the time, the places you go, (there is) a connection between people. And then (there’s) our food, which is delicious — it’s something you wouldn’t want to miss.
Aside from beauty pageants, what are you passionate about?
I support women. I do a lot of charity work that supports kids affected by Ebola. During the outbreak, I was out there helping, giving out stuff for people to take care of themselves. I also help school children pay their school fees. I knew how I came up — it was very hard for me. If I’m having all these opportunities, I need to give back.
Did the Ebola outbreak affect you personally?
None of my family members were affected, (though) it was hard seeing it affect my country. A lot of people lost their jobs, suffered and died from it — it was devastating.
What would being crowned Miss Universe 2017 mean to you?
It would be the greatest honor of my life. As I said, it’s not just publicity for myself, but for my country as a whole. I want to welcome everyone to come to Sierra Leone. Everyone will love it.