My Somewhat Less than Put Together African Attire

October 25, 2012
African Attire

In the movies, when women travel abroad they always look fantastic. All the time. Take Hilary Swank in P.S. I Love You, for example. When she meets her future husband in Ireland at the beginning of the movie, she’s got her eyebrows plucked, fresh-faced make-up on, adorable hat perched on her perfect hair. It’s really no wonder Gerard Butler fell in love with her.

I even see this in non-movie-star tourists. I shared both of my international flights to Tanzania (Detroit to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro) with women in fitted jeans, pantsuits, flattering sweaters, lipstick, even high heels. These flights, mind you, were overnighters. You know, the kind of flight where you sleep three inches away from strangers and fumble around for your toothbrush in your carryon and get to watch other people doing intimate things like taking their medicine and reading Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, caughtcha, 70-year-old woman a few rows in front of me).

I spent a solid chunk of time on those planes attempting to fathom how my fellow female travelers maintained their impeccable appearances throughout our thirty-five-hour journey. Because by the time I even arrived in Detroit off my first flight from D.C., my linen pants were wrinkled, stretched-out and frumpy and my white V-neck hung crookedly off my shoulders, revealing graying, fraying sports-bra straps.

My face and hair were greasy and my skin was doing this great thing it does where it realizes it’s inside an airplane and immediately breaks out. My hands were sticky and my mascara had already melted off. Instead of hoping to meet my future husband, I was pretty much trying to hide from him, lest he see me in such a condition.

As you might be able to guess, things haven’t improved much for me in the personal-appearance department during the seven weeks I’ve spent so far in Africa. Not that I’ve made a whole lot of effort. My volunteer organization consists almost solely of women, and the local men are all about six inches shorter than me (I’m six feet tall), so I have pretty firmly decided that I have nobody to impress here. This attitude, while not conducive to landing me any Gerard Butlers, has actually proven unbelievably refreshing after the cultural pressure of strict appearance requirements in the West.

We do shower every day because we come home from work at the orphanages under several layers of dust and dirt and sweat and porridge, but at my homestay we don’t have hot water, so I don’t like to spend more time in there than I have to and only wash my hair about once a week. I don a thick headband or a baseball cap the rest of the time, braiding my hair or tying it in tight knots on top of my head to hide the slickness. We like to joke that all the dust soaks up the grease in our hair. (Probably a myth, but you can talk yourself into anything.) A few weeks ago my roommates and I went to a nearby bar for a drink before dinner and I’d just washed my hair. One girl did a double-take when she saw me.

“Amanda, your hair looks different. Did you dye it or something?”

“Uh, no?” I said, confused. “I did just wash it.”

She looked puzzled. “It’s a different color,” she said.

My freshman year of college, I quit biting my fingernails cold turkey. But in Tanzania I started again, to keep them short enough so dirt doesn’t cake underneath them. I don’t wear make-up because I’d just sweat it off during my hour-and-a-half commute to work every day, and because the anti-malaria medicine I take every morning incidentally also clears up your skin, the happiest side effect I’ve ever heard of. I don’t pluck my eyebrows because the lights in the house aren’t bright enough to really see very well, and the electricity goes out a lot. I didn’t even bother bringing a blow dryer or hair straightener. I only packed clothes I didn’t want to bring home, planning on trading everything or leaving items with kids who needed them, so my wardrobe consists of my absolute least flattering items. We hand-wash all our own laundry as well, so nothing (at least nothing I wash) ever really gets what Westerners might consider clean. There’s no point, anyway – with all the dust outside, anything hanging on the line dries with a nice thick layer of dirt on top.

It’s funny to see Facebook pictures of my roommates in their home environments. I almost don’t recognize them under their careful make-up and clean, well-fitting clothes and shiny hair. Interestingly, the way we volunteers never see each other here is how many Tanzanian women look every day. They work hard to look good – just as we do at home. Their hair is shiny and intricately styled in braids or twists. They dress in colorful wraps called kangas that show off their full hips. They wear pounds of make-up, and shave off their eyebrows to paint on new ones with purple, red or black pencil. During one daladala ride in Zanzibar I saw a baby girl not more than a few months old wearing more eye make-up than I have cumulatively applied in the past two months.

“In town women want to be like the white people because they want to marry white people,” a twenty-something man once informed me on the street. But if my fellow volunteers and I are any indication, white people look, quite frankly, like crap when we’re in Tanzania. I’ve often wondered if our lack of effort toward our appearances here could be construed as disrespectful. I don’t care if I look good because I’m not trying to impress anyone here. Why not? Why don’t I care what the locals think of my appearance? I care at home.

Do I see myself as being above Tanzanians’ opinions of me? While it wouldn’t initially seem like dirty hair and a lack of make-up should be a big deal, I think it’s actually significant in the larger picture. It’s cultural elitism, once more rearing its greasy-haired head.

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