Hi Angie. Thanks for talking with us today. Before we dive into the topic du jour, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?
I was born in Southern California, just north of L.A. to Colombian immigrant parents. I also spent three years as a child in Costa Rica, so I was pretty much a Third Culture Kid.
And how long have you lived in Senegal?
We’ve been in Senegal for the past five years.
Your family lives in Thiès but you also lived in Dakar, right?
We spent our first three years in Liberté VI, Dakar. Then when the Bible school where my husband teaches moved to Thiès, so did we.
Would you say that you live and work in an expat community or are you more integrated in the local community?
I aspire to integrate into the local community, but since we just moved to a new neighbourhood after returning from home assignment, and since I’m home most of the time caring for our six month-old baby Evangeline as well as her big sister Isabella, who is four, I haven’t gotten out as much as I’d like to get to know my neighbours. Ndank, ndank. (Slowly, slowly.) ☺
I’m sure this lifestyle is a continual learning process. What would you say is the best, or more enjoyable, thing you’ve learned about dressing in Senegal?
Early on in our time here, Dan and I were walking to church in our Senegalese Sunday best when we ran into our landlady. She paid me a compliment, and I thanked her and explained where we were heading. She was equally decked out, so I returned the compliment. When I asked her where she was going, she smiled and said, “Just to buy bread, but you never know who you might run into!”
Someone taught me a Wolof proverb that helped me understand the value the Senegalese place on personal attire: “You eat for yourself, but you dress for others.” So often, in Western culture, we think of our personal appearance as just that, a very personal matter. How I choose to dress is my business, and shouldn’t bother anyone. Nothing could be further from the truth here, so I try to keep this in mind before I walk out the door, even to run a quick errand.
Do you wear Senegalese clothing often?
I wear a full Senegalese outfit (taille basse) to church on Sundays and to formal events. The rest of the time, I wear simple (less binding and cooler!) outfits that are a mix of Senegalese and Western. For example, I’ll wear a simple wax print skirt with a fëgg jaay (second-hand market) top, or a wax print tunic with equally frugally acquired capris.
I dress pretty much the same everywhere in Senegal, with the exception that on vacation, I’ll venture out in knee-length shorts, which I don’t do in Thies or Dakar.
Tell us about your favorite moment wearing Senegalese clothes.
Just before my birthday during our first months here, I bought my first traditional Senegalese outfit près-a-porter at Marché HLM. I had ventured into its dark, inner corridors to get the best price, and came home with a beautiful lime green and cherry red outfit with contrasting embroidery. I also bought a matching beaded necklace that I wore as a simple choker. The moment I walked out the door the night Dan took me out for a special dinner, it seemed like the whole neighbourhood took notice, and showed their approval with smiles and kind words. Maybe they were just happy to see the wacc bu bes (newcomer) taking her first steps into their world of Senegalese fashion, but either way, it felt great.
What have the Wolof have taught you about dressing appropriately for their culture?
Actually, what they’ve taught me goes beyond just dressing appropriately for their culture. The Wolof have taught me to make every effort to look my best every time I step out the door whether I’m in Senegal or North America. Not only that, being here has also helped me realize the importance of looking good at home as well.
So often in Western culture, we stay-at-home moms are guilty of spending the day in sweets or even pyjamas, and welcoming our husbands home from work in the same unkept manner. And while my incentive for looking good for my husband may not be the fear of him getting a wuju (second wife), I do consider keeping up my personal appearance as a gift to my husband.
Your view seems to be much like Fatou Kiné’s in that sometimes, although we don’t mean to, we toubabs can offend with our clothing choices. What would you suggest those of us living in Senegal do if we have cultural questions about our clothing?
Khady, I think in your blog entry about running attire you hit the nail on the head: Talk to a local. Ask a trusted friend what her advice would be.
If someone were coming from the US for a visit or short stay, what would you suggest they pack (or not!)? Anything that’s an absolute must or or don’t?
Besides the usual instructions about wearing modest clothes that covers the knees and isn’t too form-fitting, here’s what I’ve told visitors, whether it’s family or a short-term trip: Plan to dress just slightly more casual than you would for a nice dinner out or church on Sundays. Bring comfortable sandals you can walk in, because you can forget about wearing tennis shoes with skirts (unless you bring a note from your doctor explaining why you have to!).
In the past, whether we were driving down to Baja California, Mexico or flying across the pond to Ghana, I consistently remember packing grubby clothes so as to not make “poor people” feel bad. (I’m just being honest here, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone on this one!). One thing I try to explain is that even the poorest person in Senegal dresses well. Like another Wolof proverb I learned early on says, “A beautiful dress covers an empty stomach.” So, leave your camping clothes at home, because you’ll feel pretty silly if you get here and stand out not only for being white, which is inevitable, but also for being the worst dressed person at the party!
Thanks again for your time and talking with us, Angie!
Thank you, Khady!