What I wear in Uganda matters more there than it does here at home. It’s a confounding set of circumstances to find myself trying to fit in along the spectrum of being myself and conforming to other’s expectations. I’m usually not so good at conforming to suit other people’s comfort level. Actually there have been seasons in my life when I flat out refused to conform, which doesn’t imply I was at all vulgar or rude, but if I wanted to wear a dress to go to the grocery store that’s what I wore. If I was fresh from the gym and sweaty and knew there was garden work ahead for the day, I wouldn’t change until all the day’s work was complete, even if that meant I had to stop in for an errand on my way home. Dressing at home is more about comfort and personal flair than it is about who I encounter and what someone else prefers to see me wear. Truthfully, I’d be offended if someone had something to say about how under or over dressed I appear to be. I love fashion, always have, and I tend to believe I have my own style well cultivated, and it rarely has anything to do with what’s in the store fronts. My quirky, feminine, artsy tendencies match who I am, and I’m comfortable being myself whether that’s in vogue or not. For example, I can’t live without my havaiana flip-flops and I’ll slip into them with a skirt and diamonds and not think a thing about it, as long as my pedicure is up to par and my hair is looking good. I also have a gorgeous collection of carefully selected shoes that I wear when I feel like it and otherwise consider beautiful art in my closet. I love to wear shorts, dresses, scarves and hats. I don’t much like to wear jeans. I’ll put on a pretty skirt just to stay at home all day and feel comfortable.
There are times when what I choose to wear has to be appropriate, and I subscribe to dressing appropriately especially as I move further into my forties. You won’t catch me in a short skirt, and if it is a wee bit short there will never be high heels on my feet. And the tight on top, tight on bottom approach to dressing won’t work for me either. Either it’s loose, tight or tight, loose, but never tight tight. You might never catch me in public wearing a bathing suit. And, furthermore too much skin showing is just too much, regardless if it’s enviously toned or loose and flabby. I know how to proportion my outfits so I don’t actually appear the 5’3” I am, thanks to slightly longer limbs and a short torso I can usually seem taller if I’m careful not to wear proportions that make me look squat. These are some of my beliefs when I’m working out who I am in my closet, and rarely do I ever care or consider who I am meeting or how they might prefer I appear.
I know dressing causes panic in a lot of women, and truth be told women dress to impress other women. Admit it. Now that is clear, let’s consider giving that up ladies, really it would save a lot of angst. It’s far better to be myself than to try and impress you. Sorry if that offends, but, that’s where I am and for the most part have mostly been. In fifth grade I had my own sense of style and I loved to wear clothes that I liked, but it turns out there were a group of girls who couldn’t stand me because of this and they actually harassed me extensively to the point that I was in the counselor’s office with a heap of problems to sort out. My teacher had a conference with my mother and said, “it might help if she just wore plain bluejeans.” I was so angry about that! This was a clue to the world that I was an emerging artist, expressing my creativity with my clothes. Even at age eleven I stood on my right to be who I am. (She was not the best teacher I ever had.) Unfortunately the whole ordeal did make me a little insecure about myself and it took me most of my adolescence to smooth it out. And I came right back to where I started from, I am who I am, and if that makes other people uncomfortable, they can choose other friends and I’m ok with that. (I know I’m a piece of work, please pray for my husband.)
So, when planning what to wear in Uganda, I have to conform more than I might otherwise do. Sacrifice myself for the cause. I have listened to advice from other leaders about what to wear on a mission trip to Uganda, which is naturally conservative, but not full coverage like those places closer to Arab cultures. I have spent a lot of time observing what the women wear on the streets of Kampala. Kampala is far different from going out into the villages because there are more western styles in the city, such as women in pants and jeans, but not at all in the villages. The women all wear long skirts there. I love skirts! That should be no problem for me to decide what to wear. But there is the business of fabrics and the methods of washing my clothes. Most of my favorite clothes would be ruined by the heavy duty hard hand washing that occurs with that harsh soap they sell in Uganda. I learned that the hard way the first trip. So I have to scour my things for what will hold up in those conditions and still be pretty enough because in Uganda there is a high expectation to appear looking “smart”. The word is not “you look good” but “you look smart”. (so British)
On the streets I notice every single woman is looking her best with skirt, button down shirts, and all sorts of pretty accessories. Even the poorest women I meet wear dresses to do their work with a colorful African print cloth tied around them that can be soiled. It’s out of the question for a woman to wear short shorts! Don’t even think about it, because it’s vulgar to them, and the most sensuous area on a woman to a man in this region is her thighs and they are covered at all times. When they are not, they will be wondering if you are for sale. You know what I mean. With that said, every manner of your breast can be bared, and it’s common for mama’s to whip it out right in public and feed the baby without a cover, even in church. Go figure.
There was another team of college kids staying at the Cooks house and there were murmurings of concern as they were heading out to the villages because one girl had short shorts on and another girl had multiple face piercings. That’s all fine in America but here it can cause danger for the team, and no one knew what to say or how to approach the problem. There should have been an orientation, but it was not covered. The shorts were easy to address and she quickly put on a long skirt. But no one knew what to do about the piercings, and these were the real issue, because it says to any man who sees her that she’s a prostitute. Obviously she is not, nor is she a conformist, which I can relate to, but, still, “when in Rome”…. There are flying monkeys and danger all along the yellow brick road. I’m not sure if anyone said anything to her, but we did pray for their protection.
Herb Cook has lived his whole life in Africa, a missionary kid growing up in the Congo and a career missionary in Congo, Kenya and Uganda now for sixteen years. He gets it, and if anyone wants to understand what it is like to be a mzungu in these areas he knows. Now, Herb only wears dress pants, shoes that can be shined, and button down shirts. Every day. He explained why, and it’s because in Uganda what you wear is a sign of respect to who you meet.Too many times he has been ridiculed for not wearing nice shoes, or neat clothes, so he gave in and began to dress to please others. It’s a serious message of either disrespect or respect. And when I consider what every single Ugandan has worn to meet or greet me, it is their best and prettiest clothes. So shouldn’t I approach them with respect if this is how they receive it?
Oh the pressure that comes with that! I toss out my unwillingness to conform when I am in Uganda, and I know I have a role I must walk tall in, I am Mama Tonya, and to show everyone there respect, I put on my best dresses and bless them by showing them how much I respect their culture of fashion. Meanwhile, I have to be sure none of it is white, light, tight or delicate. So, it has been my fun to purchase full length skirts there, and some wild and fun African dresses. I had three full length African dresses made to fit me all for $40-$60 each. And when I wear these in public, everyone tips their head to me, smiles, tells me how “smart” I look, and they are eager to know me better. What does this mean? I am able to share the message I have brought and they are eager to learn from me. Isn’t that the point? I think so.
So now, I have a section of clothes in my closet that are for Uganda, primarily. But here in America, I may get the pluck and feel the urge to step out in some of that garb, and if I do, well, here , I don’t really care what anyone thinks. So, I suppose this all proves that I can be flexible after all and still be me.