Irish beauty-pageant history was made at an outdoor ceremony in Cavan on Sunday night when Pamela Uba, a 26-year-old medical scientist, became the first black woman to be crowned Miss Ireland in a contest that has been running since 1947.
“It means so much to me,” a delighted Uba says. “I am so grateful I can show girls that colour is not something that holds you back and it doesn’t matter where you come from, the world is your oyster.”
Uba is a part-time model who worked on the frontline during the pandemic. She came to Ireland as an asylum seeker from Johannesburg, in South Africa, when she was seven. "I remember thinking it was strange that I couldn't hear gunshot when I arrived," she says. The eldest of six siblings, she grew up in the direct-provision system and is now a "very proud" Irish citizen. "I cried when I got my Irish passport."
People need to be able to live their lives. I hope Ireland continues to help people, but the direct-provision system needs to be rethought and possibly removed
When she arrived in Ireland she spent time in centres in the Dublin area before being moved to Athlone, Co Westmeath, and, finally, to a centre in Ballyhaunis, in Co Mayo, where she spent a decade with her mother, brothers and sisters. She is grateful to have made a home here but critical of the system. "People shouldn't be made to stand still for years and years," she says. "I was in it for 10 years, not knowing what was happening or when my life could start. People need to be able to live their lives. I hope Ireland continues to help people, but the direct-provision system needs to be rethought and possibly removed."
Uba, who is GAA-mad – she was a handy centre-back footballer as a teenager – describes school and sport as her escape from the challenges of life in direct provision. A "nerdy" student, she remembers always wanting to study something that would help people. She did her medical-science degree in Galway and is awaiting the results of her master's in clinical chemistry from Trinity College Dublin.
“My mum, she was in absolute tears,” she says of the family reaction to her win. “When I was getting ready for the Leaving Cert I remember thinking, ‘What is the point? I am only going to be sent back to Africa to sell lemons on the street.’ We’ve come so far.”
During the pandemic Uba was proud to work at Galway University Hospital, monitoring the inflammatory process in patients who contracted Covid-19. “Those results determined how serious the infection was in people,” she says. She recalls, when the hospital got hit by the cyberattack on the Health Service Executive, having to go back to paper-based communication. “One day I did 35,000 steps running to all the wards to make sure patients had their results.”
It's horrible to hear people telling me to go back to my country when I've worked so hard to make Ireland my home
In December Uba will represent Ireland at the 70th Miss World festival, in Puerto Rico. "I can't even describe how excited I am to represent my country on such a huge platform. I can't wait."
She hopes to use her Miss Ireland title to represent a more diverse Ireland. She was trolled by racists on social media when she was crowned Miss Galway a few days before the first lockdown, in March 2020. “I’ve experienced racism, and it’s horrible to hear people telling me to go back to my country when I’ve worked so hard to make Ireland my home,” she says.
It was Uba who sent letters to politicians and filled out forms during their family’s drawn-out asylum-seeking process. “We are all human, and we all deserve the same love and respect.”
She says that for the most part she has been supported and celebrated. “My parish priest was my referee for my citizenship. I’ve had so much support from my community in Galway and Ballyhaunis, who are all cheering me on.” Speaking of cheering, she says she is hoping Mayo win the All-Ireland football final on Saturday. Sam Maguire and Miss Ireland for Mayo in one year? “That would be a great result,” she says, laughing.