When joining the Peace Corps, a trainee is innudated with what can only be described as one of the most voluminous mailing processes originating from a single organization an individual can be a part of. And the real kicker is that almost all of it is critical for your service, and my impression of my colleagues is that we all gobbled it up! Buried deep in these mailings, often in the country profile, is the required dress for training. Considering most people think of the Peace Corps as this rugged outdoor experience, the required dress for Kenyan training, oddly, seemed more appropriate for a round of golf with the other board members than living for two months on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro (which was called Mt. Kenya at that time… turns out we were relocated before we ever arrived). Of course, this is all in preparation to blend into a, “conservatively dressed,” society, where a woman in jeans is a hooker, and a guy wearing shorts is a drug dealer.
So… Peace Corps lied to us. Of course. It would be the first of many, “miscommunications,” or “Peace Corps training philosophies,” which would force us trainees to live lives often contrary to what actual Kenyans perceive as their own culture. But who were we to argue. Nobody ever said “culturally appropriate,” was synonymous with, “culturally correct.” And we in Peace Corps are far more concerned about being appropriate than correct, for better or worse.
I thought however, that I would kindly engage you all with some of the more traditional Kenyan outfits I witness in and around the Mombasa area.
Firsf off the generalizations. There seems to be a fascination with belts. Not everyone loves belts, don’t get me wrong. But it seems that the many people wearing belts want you to know it. They have nice big buckles, often in the shape of Texas, or some sports team, or just… I cannot describe belts. They are big. Really, really big. A picture may be required. I’ll try and get one.
People wear business suits. In Nairobi. And only in Nairobi from what I can tell from my travels. That’s where the business happens I guess. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t like Nairobi. I don’t even own a suit.
Women, especially on the coast, are often wearing kangaas that have either been wrapped, or tailored into some style outfit. A kangaa is a giant rectangle of cloth, the same type of fabric used to make the bandanas that you would buy in A.C. Moore. They oftentimes have bright patterns on them, adding a lot of colorful movement to the coastal villages. I must admit, I can already see myself missing all the color when I go home, but such is life.
The average younger person (those pesky twentysomethings), will often be wearing t-shirt and jeans. But we weren’t allowed to wear jeans (or shorts) during training.
If you are at work, it’s a collared shirt and khaki trousers for a man, and a blouse or nice top and skirt for women, though more and more women are also wearing trouers. The funny thing about “collared shirt,” though is that it refers to ANY shirt with a collar. I wear hawaiian shirts on Fridays because I can, and it helps put me in the mood for the weekend after a long week. There is a fiftysomething year old teacher here at NYS that wears one of those giant button down dragon-print shirts you can get at Khols or Wal-Mart. You all know what I am talking about?
When walking around town though is when true Kenyan creativity comes through. Some of my favorites would be the gentleman casually walking around in the Mombasa sun wearing a faux-leopard-fur, “Pimp Hat.” Or another gentleman I saw at the ferry wearing one of those French style (or russian?) brimless fur hats, minus the ear flaps. Parachute pants are big here, and big not as in size, but as in on a given day, you will see more than one person wearing parachute pants. And tracksuits. Lots of tracksuits.
But my favorite are the t-shirts. As I said, a very common style of dress is the simple t-shirt and jeans. Many people (I would guesstimate 95%) purchase their clothing at the second hand markets (including yours truly). These markets get their clothing from all the Western Charities that do their clothing donations (I am now living on the other end of clothing collection box; I find that most interesting). So when you are in Kenya, keep your eye out for Mickey Mouse, Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, every super hero you can think of, bar mitzfah shirts, high school shirts, professional sports teams, everything! However, most kenyans have no idea that the shirt they are wearing actually has relevance to anyone. Most just don’t care, it’s not that they think it means something other than what it does. I have yet to see and Franklin, MA, but I have seen plenty of things from Massachusetts in general. Though I still get a kick out of the Bar Mitzfah t-shirts.
Needless to say, I wear Hawaiian shirts without shame. And no one can stop me!