Travelling across Africa as I do, it’s predominantly when I go to West and Central Africa that I see my ex-pat and national colleagues wearing clothing made from brightly coloured African prints. I think a lot of us in East Africa have one or two such items of clothing in our wardrobes, but it would be unusual to see someone in anything other than western clothing in the office. In Nairobi, such things seem to be reserved for special occasions. (We do have an informal ‘African’ dress code on Thursdays, but it’s really only a few of the Kenyan ladies who follow that.) On my recent trip to Ouagadougou in Bukina Faso, I was faced with an array of African dresses one lunchtime. A Burkinabe man called Abel seemingly sets up shop outside the refectoire every Tuesday lunchtime. And I was one unsuspecting customer that day! In context, these prints look great. The Burkinabe ladies in the office were adorned in a whole array of bright colours, and on the streets, it was wonderful to see ladies dressed so smartly, riding along on the motorbikes. A real splash of colour. But out of context, they can appear out of place – to this particular westerner’s eye at least.
Most of the dresses are pretty generous in size, and lacking in much shaping, partly I guess to allow for a good amount of air circulation in a hot climate (Ouagadougou’s temperatures were a ‘cool’ 35C while I was there; hot is 10C higher than that!). I had one dress in Ghana my first time there, when I needed something suitable to wear for a ceremony in which the daughter of some Wycliffe missionaries was made queen mother of the village in honour of the work that her parents had done. I could practically turn around in that dress while it remained stationary! (That same trip, I bought shirts for my dad and brother which were as toned down colour-wise as I could find. On return to the UK, they both suddenly appeared incredibly colourful!)
|Abel and some of his wares|
At Abel’s suggestion, I tried on various dresses in the ladies toilet. Not particularly pleasant as there was no fan or air conditioning in there, so it was a trifle warm, and there was only a small mirror so I couldn’t really get an idea of the full effect. Some of the fabrics were beautiful, but just not my colours. In the end, I settled for two, one blue, one green, with the view that I could wear them in the evenings in Nairobi in my flat at the hot time of year, or at the coast. Whether I will remains to be seen. However, even if I never wear them, I did at least provide support to the local economy in my purchases!