I was born in Kilimanjaro, but my parents decided to move to the city. Our house in Dar es Salaam was on top of a mountain, and down the hillside, we had a farm where my mom grew mangoes and papayas, and below that was a beautiful river. We didn’t have malls or PlayStations, but we used to go swimming and looking for fish.
It was a middle-class neighbourhood with public schools, but most parents worked a lot because the economy in Tanzania is iffy. So instead of leaving the kids home alone, my older sister Happiness and I went to a boarding school nearby. I learned about taking care of myself and saving money. We studied a bit of Spanish and English, too—I speak Swahili at home, even now—but I didn’t really pay attention, so I didn’t know a word of English when I came to Canada for my mom’s job when I was 11.
She was a secretary at first, then went on to be an ambassador for the Tanzanian government. We would have dinners with prime ministers and presidents from other countries, where I had to be respectful and well-mannered. It taught me a lot about being a people person; I couldn’t be super moody because she was trying to make a good impression.
My mom has also helped at an orphanage since I was four. We’d go over there and visit the kids and watch movies with them. I just thought they were my brothers and sisters. Later, when I got my first paycheque for modelling, my mom asked, “What do you think of helping out?” It was such a good idea, so I took a percentage of my income and sent it to them. As a model, people are always telling you, “You’re so beautiful!” and, “Oh my god, you’re in a magazine!” and you can forget to be human sometimes. When I donate, it helps me ground myself.
In Canada, we moved to Orléans, a suburb of Ottawa. My dad worked in the army, so he stayed in Tanzania. I was so excited about snow—the first time I saw it, I went outside without shoes. But the culture shock was hard. In Tanzania, we like to wear traditional colourful wraps called kangas. Here, it’s jeans and a T-shirt. My mom wanted to try everything, so she’d buy Tim Hortons for breakfast. I was used to boiled plantain and warm goat’s milk in the mornings, so my stomach didn’t adjust well. I still don’t like pizza or pasta.
I learned English through an ESL program at school and the friends I made. I remember walking into class on the first day and a boy and girl sitting beside me asked if I wanted to be their friend. I just nodded because my mom told me, “If you don’t understand something, nod.” By lunchtime, my sister came to see if I was OK, and she said, “How do you have 10 people following you? You don’t even speak their language!”
Growing up, I always loved putting my outfits together before church, but I never really thought about fashion as a career. I actually wanted to be an actress. When I moved here, I watched Wizards of Waverly Place and told my mom I wanted to be like Selena Gomez. She wasn’t against it because she wanted us to take advantage of all the opportunities we had in Canada. Though she did warn me: “We can try, but you don’t speak the language very well.”
She took me to an agency called Angie’s, but because I was so tall and quiet, they assumed I wanted to model. I was too shy to say anything.
I ended up taking some classes to learn how to walk in heels and be in front of a camera, and then Angie sent my pictures to Women Management in New York. They decided to sign me when I was 14, but I had to wait till I was 16 to work.
I moved to New York at 18, after I finished high school, to put more effort into modelling. I really wanted to be a Maybelline girl. I used to watch the ads with Christy [Turlington Burns] on YouTube. It was on my 20th birthday that my agency told me I got the contract. It’s still a shock to me.
How many makeup companies have signed a dark-skinned model as a spokesperson? At fashion week, I see the numbers have changed, and there are more models of colour. I’ve been so blessed to be accepted by my peers and that I can just be myself when I’m shooting and working.
Sometimes girls message me on Instagram saying, “How do you do it with short hair? I get bullied at school for mine.” I tell them you just have to be really confident in yourself. Hair grows, but if people are bullying you, that’s who they are.
In Canada, there’s so much diversity and freedom to be the person you want to be. Canada gave me the chance to try all kinds of things, from modelling to playing hockey. Tanzania taught me about having compassion for people.
Speaking Swahili and wearing my African attire is very important to me, as is being Tanzanian-Canadian. Some models would rather just pretend to be American. But that’s the number one thing my mom taught me: never forget where you come from.”
Hair: Anna Barseghian, Brennen Demelo Studio, Judy Inc.
Makeup: Grace Lee, Maybelline, Plutino Group.
Nails: Rita Remark, Lead Nail Artist, Essie Canada, Plutino Group.
Art Director: Jed Tallo.
Fashion and Beauty Director: Carlene Higgins.
Editor: Briony Smith.