Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, June 13


I can’t help but notice how important dress is in African culture. There are similarities and difference between Senegal and the States. For instance: accessories must match, if you go to a meeting you dress to impress, and ironing is important enough to pay someone to do it for you. But unlike the US: one’s Sunday best and casual Friday attires have traded places- as Friday is the big prier day, wearing a bra is never mandatory, and anything less than full length can be a scandal.

Another interesting contrast is that I may wear an article three times before washing it over the course of a few weeks or maybe a month. But here, in Senegal, the people wear the same outfit three days in a row, then wash it and move on to the next one. The concept is the same (conserve water and usage of the clothing, right?) but the effect is wildly different. Or at least it was, until I got the hang of it. Seriously reduces need for thought in the morning, as well as for sorting through all my laundry trying to figure out what I can still wear.

As much as I try to “blend,” and just as I did in the states, I think about my style when I shop. My purchases seem to reflect me: the colors I prefer, the patterns I like, the style of cut. Part of keeping my identity is to blend African fabrics with western style cloths. This isn’t new to the Peace Corps world. We all do it. And this isn’t even the point of this story… because for the most part my family and friends in town don’t seem to mind much what I wear. And hey, not every day can be a fashion show. The people here will compliment me when I wear a nice dress (actually, they ask me to give the dress to them- but that’s just their way). And they pay way too much attention to me on the rare occasions when I do wear traditional clothing, but other than that they leave me alone. That is until my mom couldn’t take it anymore…

I brought two purses over from the States. The smaller being officially in the “going out” classification to be used only on those occasions when hair can be done and make up worn. The latter is a large bag I use every day, to carry everything from money to sun block to my computer, around town or on trips to other cities. It is made of fake red leather.

I’ve developed a relationship with the guy in town that works with leather. I’ve seen him make shoes, belts, smaller bags… and I’ve even commissioned a copy of my J Crew magic wallet (and instant success among PCVs). So, I’ve been talking to him for a while about copying my fake bag into a new and fabulous real leather one. He was all for the challenge. My plan was to give him the actual bag to use as a copy (can’t go wrong with that, right?) but I couldn’t do that until the next quarterly stipend came in (at the end of May) so I told him I’d have find something else to carry all my possessions before giving him the bag.

By June my red bag had weathered almost 10 months in the sand (not to mention the year or so I’d been using it in normal weather) and was basically a fashion embarrassment- though people were kind enough not to mention it. And on the very day that I was finally ready to take the original to my friend, I packed a small reusable shopping bag to carry my things back home, and headed for the door before my host mom stopped me. “Soda,” she says, “That bag…” She just lets the phrase hang out there. I knew what she was getting at. The look of sadness and disappointment said it was way past time to retire the thing and I got the impression I would embarrass her by continuing on with it. “I know, Anna. It has died.” She laughs, and I explain that I’m actually on the way to the market to get a new one made. I show her my shopping sack and she laughs again. “I will loan you my bag.”

When I come back from the market she sends one of my brothers in with the purse she’d been using all week. I accept it, graciously, and load up all my possessions… It’s a nice white bag that matches almost everything in my African closet (where as the red disaster probably didn’t match anything, but was the most functional thing I could’ve brought). Later in the week, it’s clear that my new bag will take a few weeks to produce and that I have to head out to Dakar for a long weekend. I approach my mom to tell her I’m going and offer to give the bag back… in case she wants to use it during the weekend. She laughs yet again. “Soda, I have many bags. You’re not going to be interrupting my wardrobe.”

How did this happen? When did I become the type of girl who only has one bag? And I let it get to a point of utter uncoordinated embarrassment. Fashionable friends who read this, I’m sorry. I suppose my excuses include a lack of space to house a collection of accessories, or the desire to spend my meager stipend on other things like cold beer and non-Senegalese food. But we can all rest easy in the knowledge that a new bag is on the way. It will be an inexpensive (a mere $40) brown leather work of art that will probably match nearly everything in my drawer of cloths. I imagine I’ll end up as the type of girl who only really needs ONE hell of a universal accessory. But just in case I’m not, there is an entire box of ‘em back in Michigan awaiting my reentry into the 1st world.

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