Matilda Dagba arrived on Swedish shores at the age of 12 without being able to read or write. She is now 25 and is on her way to completing a degree at Stockholm University.
But adapting to life in Sweden was far from easy. Matilda left Togo with her father after her parents had split up. Shortly before her departure she contracted yellow fever and was dazed and confused when she left Africa for the icy north.
“I remember that the whole thing went so quickly and that I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my mother or my grandmother. I was so sad.”
Spurred on by the thought of making her grandmother proud, Matilda quickly dedicated herself to her studies at school.
“It took me longer to do homework than my classmates, as I had to work harder.”
But the hard work paid off. Just three years on from the painful separation from her mother, she had learned Swedish and was able to read and write.
Getting used to the culture proved at least as difficult as acquiring the language.
“In Sweden people don’t show their feelings. They are quiet. I was the opposite: if I like you I will show you by hugging you or saying nice things to you.
“People were not used to it so I was bullied and sometimes they would tell me to go back to Africa. It wasn’t easy but I learned to adapt quickly.”
With her high school days behind her, Matilda found she was still drawn to the culture she had left behind.
“I am studying Global Development and Health. It is a 3-year full time course and I have one year left. I think I chose this course because I wanted to have an understanding of Africa, third world countries and the politics of the west.”
Earlier this year Matilda’s life reached a new high when she was crowned Miss Africa in Sweden, becoming a goodwill ambassador for the country’s African community.
“I was so shocked. I expected to come third or something but I didn’t expect to win the whole thing.”
Matilda saw off opposition from nine other contestants to take the prize, which she says has little in common with regular beauty pageants.
“There was more of a focus on our culture and us as young, black, African woman living in Sweden rather than beauty.”
Having returned from a trip to Egypt with her fiancé – her reward for claiming the title – Matilda is now working hard to change people’s perceptions of her home continent.
“The image that the media is selling young people about Africa is not good, the poverty and AIDS and so on.
“Many young people are confused, as here in Europe people don’t have respect for us because of our background. I will encourage young people to go back to Africa and see where they come from with their own eyes.
I think we need a young role model my age that can inspire other young black Africans. This competition made me very aware of that. Maybe I can be that someone.”
But she doesn’t only want to work with global development issues once she finishes college. A possible musical career is also on the cards.
“I would like to focus on my singing and dancing as I’m at my happiest on the stage.”
Matilda returned to Togo for the first time in November 2007 having worked double shifts to save enough money for tickets for herself and her younger sister.
“When we arrived at the airport we were greeted by about 30 people. There was drumming and music and, when they said my name, my mother passed out.
“It was so powerful. I had not seen my mother for 13 years and she had not seen my sister for 17 years.”
Unfortunately, Matilda’s grandmother had passed away eight years previously. But she would doubtless have been very proud to welcome back the African Queen of Sweden.
Matilda Dagba was interviewed by Jonquille Okhiria.
Miss Africa is a Swedish-African event that aims to strengthen integration, present a broader perception of beauty and create role models for young people and women. You can find more information at www.missafricasweden.se