My summer uniform in Colorado is a spaghetti-strap tank top, jean shorts, and flip flops. I wear this at home, when I walk the dog, when I see family and friends, to run errands, and sometimes even to church. Added into the daily summer clothing rotation is a swimsuit, plus athletic clothes and shoes. I don’t love getting dressed up for work, but when I do, I try to look decent in clothes that fit my body and personality.
Here in Uganda, I dress like hobo bag-lady in loose pants, ankle-length skirts, and thick strapped tanks—all in neutral colors and some with indigenous prints. This attire is not because of the culture, this is because of Americans’ perception of the culture. Leading up to my travel, I was told that I had to dress ever-so-modestly because it would be inappropriate to do anything else.
The Ugandans must be so confused about why all the mzungus come looking like they just did their shopping from a thrift store that only stocks clothes in sizes 3x too large. The irony in this is that much of the clothing sold here is actually second-hand from Western countries. But their second-hand clothing leans heavily toward bright colors, fitted to actual body size, and with actual style. Granted, some people dress so over-the-top, looking incongruous to their environment, strongly resembling Effie Trinket.
Aside from not fitting, my clothes are impractical for this environment. I ride on a motorcycle almost every day, making skirts a poor choice. The Ugandan women are adept at side-saddling on the motorcycles, but since I think there is little as dangerous in this world as motorcycles, I prefer to sit in a position that gives me the ability to hold tight with my inner thighs and calves. As such, my oh-so-modest skirt ends up hiked around the middle of my thighs for all of Iganga to see.
The other impractical part about the long skirts is walking. Aside from the motorcycles, you walk everywhere. I’m what you’d call a fast walker, and long skirts make my pace impossible. First, they get in your way as you navigate the jutted roads, dodge animals and children, and hop over muddy puddles. Second, they are hot! Wearing long skirts or long pants in an environment that has 80% humidity and 80-some degree days just doesn’t make sense. By the time you’ve walked anywhere, you’ve got sweat dripping down your legs which is a whole other kind of gross.
Ugandans like to dress nicely. I read this in my “Tips on Ugandan Culture” book before I came, but I had no context for what it meant. I guess I thought it meant they dressed up for special occasions, wearing traditional clothing like the gomesi, their pointy-shouldered party dress. Here’s what it means: Ugandans live in one or two room homes, likely without electricity and definitely without running water, but they still manage to obsessively wash and flat dry clothes, and put together stylish outfits. Ok, not all Ugandans do this… you’ll see dirty, tattered clothes in the very rural villages. But there is a substantial population of working Ugandans—even in this rural town of Iganga—who care very much to present themselves as clean and stylish. The even have word for this: “smart.”
I’ve only been called “smart” a few times. 100% of those few times is when I’ve doctored my sad clothing selection to be tighter and slightly more hip-hop. I thankfully brought two stretchy pencil skirts (last minute purchases from Old Navy) that can be modified into above-the-knee skirts by gathering the material around my thighs. I’ve also been wearing my black, stretchy night-time tank fairly often, along with a fancy-backed Under Armour sports bra. Hey, you gotta make due with you got.
My other “smart” skirt is something that my friend, Patience, helped me buy for a party. One of the businesses owned and run by the organization I work with is a restaurant/bar/guesthouse/catering operation. It celebrated it’s 1-year anniversary a couple weeks ago with a party that had a band and charged a cover. I was not about to go to a party full of smart Ugandans wearing my droopy attire, so I asked Patience if she’d take me shopping.
Patience works in the restaurant as it’s bookkeeper and I’ve spent all summer teaching her Excel. She’s what you’d call “smart.” She often wears a fitted, black stretchy skirt to work. I told her I wanted one like that. The Saturday morning of the party we met at the restaurant and she took me on a walk all over town searching for the perfect skirt. Because all the clothing for sale is second-hand, you can’t spot a skirt on display and expect to go find it in your size. What you see is what you get. So what you do is target the vendors who have a variety of skirts and try to find something that is your size and taste. Sort of like at a thrift store.
After about an hour of fast-walking and looking, we found a teal stretchy skirt with a black elastic waist-band that was just my size. It didn’t even look second-hand… there are occasionally clothes sold that are made by local tailors, so either this was one of those, or it was in excellent second-hand condition. The vendor wanted 15,000 shillings. I offered 10,000 and then Patience whispered to me that it should be 5,000. She tried to negotiate 5,000, but it was no deal. She made us leave and told me she’d send someone back to get it for 5,000.
Later that morning, I ended up paying 15,000 for the skirt. The report I got back is that 15,000 really was the price due to the stretchy material and not because I was a mzungu. But who really knows.
One thing I do know is this: Clothing and appearance is something that can be controlled in a place where control of most every other aspect of life is futile. This is a place where people eat huge amounts of starchy carbs because it’s the only practical way to fill their bellies. They build houses quite literally one wall at a time because incremental building is all they can afford. They bathe in buckets with water hauled in jerry cans from a pump some distance from their house because the infrastructure is almost non-existent. Their only way out is education, but they have to pay for that, too, to get anything that resembles quality. The one thing they can control is their appearance. And everybody has to wear something, so they might as well look “smart.”
My writing is based on my experience and perspective. The facts are as I interpret them.