She is one of the tallest documented Beauty Queens ever to compete in any Grand Slam and beauty pageant, standing at 6 feet and 5 inches (1.95 m). Her name is Aheu Deng Kudum, and she is a South Sudanese beauty queen and fashion model born in the city of Bor on November 28, 1986.
In June 2009, she was crowned Miss Earth South Sudan at the annual beauty pageant produced by the Ministry of Tourism of South Sudan and Beauties of Africa Inc, the official franchise holder.
She is an advocate for girl-child issues and speaks out against forced marriages as a survivor of one herself, of war, refugee camps and suicide victims.
Aheu also operates a charity organization that helps the poor South Sudanese, where she resides in the capital city of Juba. She aspires to be a spokesperson for the unfortunate and victims of war in Africa and around the world, and right now she’s doing excellent at that from her home country and wherever she travels to.
In an exclusive interview with TheAfricanDream.net from Turkey where Aheu is on a business trip, she shared traumatic experiences from the early ages of life as she bares it all in hope that others are inspired or cautioned.
You were born a refugee, tell us about your experience growing up in the camp?
Just like any other South Sudanese child of a fallen hero, I’ve never tasted the essence of peace or freedom.
From the time I was born, my mom and I were always on the move trekking on foot on a journey of thousands of miles to seek refuge in different places because of the civil war. I was brought up by a very strong woman who dedicated her life to serving her country.
She was a coordinator of women’s affairs. Regardless of life’s storms and the impact of war, she never failed in her duties as a mother, wife, and leader. We fled to Kakuma refugee camp, the site of a UNHCR refugee camp in Kenya that was established in 1992, and lived there for a couple of years.
You were forced into marriage, that must have been quite traumatic?
Yes, and very traumatic!
As an educated woman, my mother is aware of the importance of education and she always said to me, “Education is the key in life.”
Based on this she sent me to school, and I embraced this opportunity, always emerging at the top in my class as it made mom happy, it also made me happy to see her happy. With my height, I always stood out among my peers so I would have been easily identified if I wasn’t doing well academically — Aheu said to TheAfricanDream.net over the phone from Turkey.
At the age of sixteen, her education was cut short against her will through a forced marriage which she talks about:
I had just completed my primary school with great results and a scholarship to pursue high school education when my uncles ganged up and forcefully married me off to a complete stranger just in exchange for a dowry.
My mother had gone to church when this incident occurred. I had told them that I wanted to pursue my education and wasn’t interested in getting married as a minor. They didn’t listen but instead beat me up until I was unconscious. I was carried like a corpse to this man’s house (my supposed husband to be) who was still in the United States of America (USA) at the time.
This traumatic experience happened in broad daylight and was witnessed by hundreds of people in the refugee camp, a place that is supposed to be safe and secure for all refugees. I was left there to suffer alone, and nobody came to my rescue.
A touching story. Did you ever contemplate escaping?
On the night of my forced marriage, I had to share a bed with a girl that was put there to supervise me so that I wouldn’t “sneak out”.
Luckily, she fell asleep, and I used the opportunity to escape. The houses in Kakuma were grass thatched with tiny windows covered with wire mesh. I had to use my fingers to rip the wire mesh off and got several cuts on my hand. I then pushed myself out with a lot of difficulties leaving bruises and deep wounds on my entire body.
With every fiber of my strength, I ran as fast as I could with no shoes on once I made it out, and with thorns piercing through my feet. I run like a sprinter towards a protection center. When I got there, I was covered in blood and out of breath. I had hoped for sanctuary, but I was immediately turned away by the security guards.
They asked me to come back the next morning as there was “no one in the office” to attend to me.
And you were only sixteen at the time, that must have been a crazy feeling?
Yes, I was and it was beyond crazy.
Completely frustrated and devastated. I sat in solitude in the darkness because I didn’t know where to go. It felt as though the world I was born into and knew was crumbling before me; hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I was naive, I was scared, and I was distraught.
After an hour or so, I decided to walk to a friend’s place and spend the night there. I barely slept through the night since I was in pain and my body was sore and swollen as my mind was now awakening my body to the physical and emotional trauma I had just experienced.
What about the “Protection Centre?”
I went back.
The next morning I went back to the protection center and they finally let me in. The women (victims of violence) I found there were way older than I was — she said in silence to TheAfricanDream.net but with boldness in her voice as she continued the conversation over the phone with the words below…
But it felt more like a prison than a protection center. No counseling was done in that place. I felt isolated and all the things that I had just gone through were playing in my mind like a movie. I fell into depression, and I felt hopeless.
It may not be austere to some people, but to me, going through it was hell. I did not see any reason to continue living. So, I gave up on life and my next action was the extreme ultimate escape!
How do you mean by Extreme?
Yes EXTREME. By that I meant I attempted suicide.
After a few days, I walked into the room, and I poured a five-liter jerrycan of paraffin oil all over my body. I was ready to set myself ablaze to end all this and end my life.
Coincidentally, one of the women in the protection center walked into the room in that instance, and saw me soaking wet, trying to find a matchbox. I would have sworn that time that I was unfortunate, but remembering it now, I can say I was the luckiest human in the universe — suicide was not to be a part of my life’s story.
She screamed wildly out of shock, and within no time I was taken to a police station like a criminal for attempted suicide. With that, I spent two days in jail. Although I would have preferred death instead. But I was given another chance to live if I look back now at it.
What about your mother, did she find out about the incident?
When my mom learned of my whereabouts, she went to the police station and asked to take me home. When I got home, I fainted and was rushed to the hospital. Upon waking up in a hospital bed and screaming on top of my lungs, the doctor had to inject me with some medication to put me to sleep. When I woke up, I couldn’t stop crying, I had become mentally unstable.
They chained me to the bed on which I was in so that I wouldn’t hurt myself. My mom was completely heartbroken and shattered. As a Dinka woman (a Nilotic ethnic group native to South Sudan), she had no voice or means of protecting me no matter how hard she tried.
My mother was by my side through the entire month I spent in the hospital. She was the best and only one counseling me and praying for me back then, she still is now. After I was discharged from the hospital, they convinced me that I was going back to continue with my studies, so I accepted to go back home, it was the only condition under which my mind at the time would let me go back home with some level of contentment.
How did the marriage thing end, and what’s the way forward?
A scholarship blessing again presented itself to me after I sat for my primary school final exams and the promise of a high school education once again seemed a tangible reality. Shortly after my exams, the young man I was supposed to forcefully marry, came from the USA.
Against my ego, I managed to summon a huge amount of courage and sat down with him. I explained to him that I wanted to focus on my studies first before anything else. I also asked him to return to the US and continue with his studies, so that we could probably get to know each other neutrally and naturally.
Today I want to say thanks to all those that have been with me from day one, especially my mother and all those who I can’t mention here now.
I am thankful to God for my daughter and the opportunity I now have to give her a better life and the same to all the young girls and women I am advocating for. I’m also grateful for my publicist Oral Ofori, CEO of TheAfricanDream.net who has been supportive and all my social media following for the love and support.
Written by: Arakunrin Lekan
Arakunrin Lekan is a Managing Editor & writer at the TheAfricanDream LLC. He’s also a freelance poet, graphics designer, and a business man.