A bevy of ladies in bikinis on Badagry’s coastline with the African sun caressing their flesh and teasing waves of water dogging their dainty heels, are an item as the locals stare at them in enchantment. They have all come from India, Thailand, Canada, Botswana, the United States of America and South Africa among other countries. But whose idea is this to bring these exotic beauties to Nigeria? A year after she won Miss Tourism Nigeria, Tomi Salami launched a charity foundation that caters for the needy. So this year, Vanessa Obioha writes, eight international beauty queens joined her in promoting the cause and exploring the city of Lagos

Tomi Salami could barely stay in one place. Her attention was divided. One minute, she was talking on the phone calmly – with a hint of urgency. The next minute, she was heading towards the elevator to another floor or the reception hall at Eko Signature Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos where her guests were staying. It was difficult to get her settled in one spot.

As a host and event organiser, it is in her nature to ensure that everything goes smoothly. For this particular event, Salami was extremely meticulous. It was the last day of the tour with the international beauty queens who came to support her charity event.

The week had been quite intense for the young model that played host to eight international models. She had invited them to be part of her annual charity outreach. Launched in March 15, 2013, the Aurora International Charity Foundation was borne out of Salami’s love for humanity. The year before, she was crowned Miss Tourism Nigeria and represented Nigeria at the Miss Tourism World competition in Thailand.

It was while she was making preparations for her birthday celebration in 2013 that she got the idea to set up the foundation.

“Basically it started as a joke. It was going to be my birthday. Then I thought to myself that a lot of people might want to get me gifts, take me to dinner, and get me a cake and all that. I didn’t feel like doing any of those things. How about putting the money together and do something worthwhile? There are a lot of children out there who carry garri sacks, semo bags to school. They don’t have school bags. Some children go to school barefoot. Let’s put this money together and do something. Let’s buy stuff for them and that was how it started. We raised funds, went to the market, got sandals, stationery, books, stocking, school bags, and that was pretty much how we started,” she recounted.

For her first outreach, Salami and her team reached out to a thousand kids. Today, the foundation reaches out via the platforms of education, welfare, empowerment and health. The educational outreach is called Kits for Kids Africa while the oral health initiative is known as Dental Drive. There is also the Aurora free market welfare initiative.

Describing herself as a caregiver, she recalled with nostalgia how she loved helping people as a child, saying: “Right from when I can’t remember to when I can, I’ve been passionate about helping people. I don’t like to see people suffer. Even before I ventured into modelling or pageantry, it has always been a part of me. When I was still very little, I didn’t even know anything, I used to give out my things, and helping people. It is who I am.”

Being a model gave her the opportunity to work with various charities within and outside the country, giving her the required skills to run a charity foundation. So far, the foundation has impacted over 20,000 Nigerians through its various initiatives as well as hosting tourism and humanitarian ambassadors from countries such as India, South Africa, Kenya and Botswana.

This year’s edition took a different angle.

As an ambassador of tourism, the TV host decided to launch a tourism and humanitarian campaign with some of her friends in the international modelling scene. Miss Universe Canada 2013, Brianna Plouffe; Miss Earth India 2016, Shaan Suhas Kumar; Miss World Wales 2016, Ffion Moyle; Miss Universe South Africa 2014, Ziphozakhe Zokufa; Miss Earth USA 201, Andreia Gibau; Miss Universe Tanzania 2016,Jihan Dimack, a Ghanaian top model, Becca Donald Knott; and Miss Italy, Sara Riddle. All flew into the country to support her.

None of the beauty queens had been to Nigeria before – not even Miss Ghana whose country is next-door neighbour to Nigeria. Beaming with enthusiasm, the models jumped on the opportunity to visit the black populous African nation.

Tagged ‘Experience Lagos’, Salami took the models on an adventurous trip around Lagos – from visiting Nike Art Gallery to a boat cruise that the models could not stop gushing about.

“That was the best, it was the amazing boat ride I have ever had,” enthused Becca.

The most impactful of the trip, however, for the models was the visit to the Badagry slave trade historical site.

“Going to Badagry was probably the most impactful experience of this trip. Just because I’ve never seen anything like it and just… where I was standing, hundreds of years ago, my ancestors were standing too. It really hit home because I grew learning about slavery and stuff but what they tell you sometimes isn’t the whole truth and so, being there I was able to not only see but hear what was actually happening and walked the path that the slaves actually walked. That’s an experience. Who knows if I will ever experience it again in my life,” said Miss USA.

“I agree that Badagry is such an incredible, historical place. I think our guide was so amazing. He was telling us stories from the past but there was also a sense of storytelling to him. He wasn’t being sad, but we felt it. We were able to tell that this was a place of historical significance. And just walking on that route was… you know, gives you goose bumps. So again, in terms of what I loved, I loved that they took us there. Usually, when people say beauty queens, they take us to high-end places but I think just going to something like that was rooted in what Nigeria is about and I love that experience. I personally think that such places of historical significance need to be maintained for generations to come. People need to know more about them,” Miss Earth India added.

One thing they all complained about was traffic and spicy food. Miss Earth India, however, paid more attention to something else.

“I see plastics everywhere. Even in the water when we went for the boat ride, there was a lot of plastic lying around, floating about, and you have like such a beautiful waterway especially when we took the boat from the yacht club that is there,” she stated unsatisfactorily.

The models also had the opportunity to participate in the foundation free market initiative to mark the United Nations International Day of Charity where they handed out gifts to residents in the Lekki axis.

Having these models around to promote tourism and charity simultaneously was important to Salami.

She said, “I believe that every citizen of Nigeria has a duty to promote the country. It’s our home. We have no other home and because of this background I have, I have access to beauty queens from all over the world; it’s like a sisterhood. And it’s what they call ‘eye candy’. A lot of people may not necessarily care about charity work but when they hear Miss South Africa is in Nigeria, they want to know what’s going on. So, beauty catches the eyes, it is attention and that’s when you are channelling the attention to a positive cause, at the same time promoting tourism and selling Nigeria in a positive way.”

The philanthropist already has plans to take beauty queens on a tour of the country next year.

“We have way bigger things planned for the future. Next year, we are going to be having Experience Nigeria. We will be taking them around, maybe not all the 36 states, but few key states, especially where tourism is really major,” Salami disclosed.

Doing such humanitarian works have given Salami a sense of fulfilment.

She added, “Do you know what it feels like when you dream of something and it comes to reality, it comes to fruition? I’m so happy. It’s not a perfect event. We had a number of hitches and things like that but all in all, it was a success.

The ladies are happy, they came in, and everything went on smoothly.

There was no accident, no security risk, so I’m really happy the way it turned out. It is also a learning experience for us because our eyes have been opened to see what we could improve on and all in all it’s a win-win experience. I feel fulfilled.”