How Alek Wek Went From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel

It wasn’t always red carpet.

Image: Vogue

Back when I was obsessed with Ftv, every time Alek Wek came up on the runway my heart did some serious backflips. My aunt brought home copies of fashion magazines and I’d keep copies of the ones with pictures of Alek. I grew up obsessed with her. So, when I saw her on the shelf at Prestige Bookshop I knew she had to come home with me.

In Alek: My Life from Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel, Alek Wek takes us through her journey from Sudan, to England, and to the world. This is not an all glitz-and-glamour journey as we often think the supermodel life is. She shares her simple childhood, the seventh of nine children and how things were before and during the Second Sudanese Civil War. We also get to know a bit about the Dinka tribe and a few history lessons on Sudan.

Alek takes us through the changes that came with the war; when her hometown Wau became a military zone with lawless militias robbing, molesting, raping and destroying everything around them, with soldiers in town and rebels on the outskirts. Her family had to flee Wau to her extended family’s village where life was very different from the one she’d been accustomed to, then had to separate and flee to Khartoum.

Through the hardships they had to endure, the loss of her father, separating, fleeing to London and all the challenges she had to face, one can tell how tough, humble and tenacious she is. Before the red carpet she was stacking shelves in a supermarket, and cleaning toilets at a salon she worked in.

My favourite part of the book was her take on race, skin colour and beauty standards. She shares how her skin colour has both helped and hurt her in the modeling industry. The challenges she faced included being found interesting but not interesting enough for the industry players to take a chance on her because of the fear of how everyone else, the audience, would respond to someone so outside of the so-called normal beauty standards.

Alek has made a statement in the fashion industry, challenged the notion of beauty and opened the gates for women who are different to be seen and to see themselves. I appreciated some of the life lessons she shared, the humility and authenticity of her voice. And, of course, the cover and some of the gorgeous photos of her inside the book are a bonus for me.

Motherhood, in ‘Mom & Me & Mom’ by Maya Angelou

“My mother’s gifts of courage to me were both large and small. The latter are woven so subtly into the fabric of my psyche that I can hardly distinguish where she stops and I begin.”
― Maya Angelou

I’ve read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and A Song Flung Up To Heaven, two of the seven books of Maya Angelou’s autobiography series. This one, Mom & Me & Mom still tells her story but with her mother as the backdrop.

After a failed marriage, Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson sent three-year-old Maya and her five-year-old brother Bailey Junior to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. At thirteen she moved back to California to live with her mother.

Mom & Me & Mom takes from Maya’s journey to appreciating her mother, and how their relationship grows. Vivian Baxter may have been a terrible mother to toddlers but she was an exceptional mother to this young woman, Maya. When her brother wants to know why she left them, her honesty teaches us something about parenthood and its struggles:

“I would have been a terrible mother. I had no patience. Maya, when you were about two years old, you asked me for something. I was busy talking, so you hit my hand, and I slapped you off the porch without thinking. It didn’t mean I didn’t love you; it just meant I wasn’t ready to be a mother.”

This is one of my favourite parts of the story, this honest explanation. There’s this general belief that once one becomes a mother, she automatically connects with her child, and being the best mother will come naturally. That’s far from the truth. Eggs may be ripe, the machine may work right, the womb might be warm and cosy enough but motherhood is not for everyone – some shouldn’t be mothers, some learn along the way, some struggle to even connect with their children for a while.

One also has to appreciate how she re-enters her children’s lives. She doesn’t use her title as a mother to reclaim some ruling spot in their lives, by forcing the relationship or forcing to close the gap between their time in Arkansas and when they return to California. She just begins to mother them, as best as she can.

The story is so moving in how her mother becomes her rock through everything. At the different stages in her life, from when she went to live with her, Ms. Baxter was there and when she wasn’t physically there Maya could always pick up the phone and her mother could straighten things.

However, things don’t turn out as wonderful for her brother Bailey Junior, as they do for Maya. The maternal neglect doesn’t go away for him no matter what efforts their mother puts in. He goes through a troubled journey, drugs, and for him, the wound doesn’t seem to heal.

Things turn out differently for Maya. You can tell from their journey together that her mother played a pivotal role in shaping the Maya Angelou that the world got to know. If you think Dr. Angelou was a phenomenal woman, then read this book and meet Vivian Baxter, a mother a lot of us need.

“I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.” – Vivian Baxter to Maya.

The autobiography:

  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
  • Gather Together in My Name
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas
  • The Heart of a Woman
  • All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes
  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven
  • Mom & Me & Mom