I have a story I would like to tell. It is about clothes. But before I tell you this story about clothes, there are some things you need to know.
- I have now passed the one year marker of living in rural Tanzania. And my life here is very different from my life in the United States.
- There were several occasions in this year that I was a phone call away from quitting and going home early. Once I was stopped from making the phone call only because my phone was dead after a four day power outage.
- Living in a new place is not the same as visiting a new place. The things that seem exciting as a visitor quickly become old and tired as you learn how much of a struggle they can make your every day life. Like not being fluent in the local language, not having a washing machine, or having to walk down dirt roads many days in tailored pencil skirts to get to work.
- This is now a place I think of as home, not my only home, but I have friends that I care about here, and that care about me. I know how to do laundry here now. I know the best spots for street food. It is a home.
- And I own and sometimes wear local clothing.
This is the point that is most significant to this story. Let me explain. Every day I try to do God’s work through our human systems of justice. I listen to people, I help connect people to education and training so that change will begin to come from them. I do my best to live in the gaps. I attend churches where the only attire acceptable for women are dresses below the knee, and where God is always “Father God.” I don’t share everything about myself, my upbringing or my social beliefs to my community here. This is because it would be isolating personally for me and because my story and beliefs would perhaps become an extreme that would not be helpful for taking unified steps forward for justice.
A few months into being here I had the blessing of being part of a baby’s journey into the world. I stayed with the mother for a few days before she had the baby, went to the hospital with her in the middle of the night, and then helped take care of the baby for a few weeks after the birth. She gave me a piece of cloth which is known here as a “kanga.” It is a beautifully dyed fabric about a yard wide and it was the first piece of anything African I had ever owned. You see I come from a place that recognizes that sometimes when we take things from cultures that are not our own, whether they be material or intangible, without understanding or acknowledging where these pieces of culture come from, we may be abusing or commodifying a history that deserves to stand alone and be recognized through its own telling.
But then this woman whom I care very much for gave me this beautiful piece of cloth as a gift, because of a bond we now share forever. A bond that I celebrate every time I hold the child I was there to see come into the world for the first time. I had also heard many origin stories about the kanga, some of the stories discuss the kanga as originating from the all white attire slaves were permitted to wear on Zanzibar and the rich colors signifying a freedom from that slavery. Other stories discuss it as arriving with some of the tribes from West Africa. I don’t know that all of the women who wear them know these legends/histories, just that this is the clothing they wear, and always have. I don’t know if these stories are true. I folded up the kanga and left it on my shelf.
One day I was complaining to my roommate about how annoyed I was at having to wear skirts to the village all the time (this being expected of me). “Then why don’t you just wear your kanga” she asked? I didn’t understand. “Just wear trousers and then when you get to the village wrap your kanga around you. Lots of women do it” she explained.
So then I had a choice. I could be more comfortable, perhaps more authentically Bernadette by wearing trousers. But then I would also be wearing something on top of the more authentic me that felt very inauthentic. I now think that perhaps I also had a fear of being identified with the women around me who wear such garments. A fear in being associated with Tanzania, in doing things the way Tanzanians do them. A sentiment perhaps as damaging as misusing culture; rejecting it out of hand.
Then one day I was caught off guard and had to be in the village quickly. Without thinking it through I grabbed the piece of cloth and hopped on a motorbike to the village. As I entered my place of work swathed in the brightly patterned fabric I was met with joyful comments and surprise. I was told things like, “now you are a real African woman,” and “now you are beautiful.” Those comments didn’t really help my comfort levels, but I had no choice but to go with it. Guess what? I survived, and the attention I received was short lived and positive not the confused stares I was expecting.
I continued to use the kanga for things like this, and then I started to use it for things like cooking and cleaning because that is what the other women around me did. It makes a great apron, and keeps the ever present dust off of your nicer clothes. I did not realize my transformation until one day I found myself squatting outside my door washing dishes in a basin with rainwater, chatting with my neighbor, wrapped in my kanga that by this time was a bit faded and ragged with use. What exactly had I transformed into? I’m still working that one out.
Since then I have amassed a few more kangas and have also had kitenge dresses made for me for various occasions. I have them made in styles that suit me, and the culture I come from, but still they are Tanzania print dresses, made by a Tanzanian seamstress. If it is made in Tanzania and it is bought in Tanzania, it is Tanzanian. Here in this place, I rarely notice these additions to my wardrobe, in fact, they are part of the regular rotation of clothes for every day use. To my neighbors and co workers, I am not doing something of note, just simply living as people do. It is good to feel like a person sometimes, when so often I am instead the foreigner.
Recently I went to Zambia for a gathering of other young adult missionaries in my program serving in the regions of Africa and Europe; the same folks I had been trained with before leaving for Tanzania. Many of these other young adults are African. The first full day there was a Sunday. Naturally I pulled out my best outfit for church. It wasn’t until I stepped out of my hotel room and into the lobby that I realized I was no longer Benadetta wearing a nice dress for church, rather I was again the white American wearing an African print dress. I have experienced “foreigner” in many ways this year, but never in this particular way. It was an awful feeling. I was sure there were eyes on me. I imagined there were judgements and questions about my insensitivity to culture. Further more, I was in Zambia, not Tanzania. I couldn’t communicate in a local language that would in some ways at least indicate a history with or knowledge of this land. I had none. I was just a white woman in an African dress. And later that night when I slipped out of my room again wrapped in a kanga- my now automatic response to needing to be modest, I realized that not only was I wearing a kanga, but that the way I was wearing it, in this hotel for business people, is not a place for Africans to wear them either.
In Tanzania, the kanga is a cloth worn for work, made to get dirty, to protect the nice things underneath. If you are wealthy, you likely do not go outside of your house wearing one. After heavy use they get cut up and are used as cloth diapers for babies. So when I wore a kanga that first time, I was saying to my community that hard work is for all of us, even me. Choosing a kanga over some other kind of clothing reduced the gap between Tanzania and Bernadette, it was a message that made clear my intention to do the work it takes to welcome change to this community.
Had I been an African woman who was staying at this hotel, the guests and staff would have assumed I was from a village, I would have been saying a lot about my life. They would not have done anything rude, but perhaps wondered what a woman from a village was doing at a conference in this hotel. As a white woman I was showing that I had no understanding of the appropriate places to wear this piece of clothing. But I was Benadetta who did come from the village, and I hadn’t thought to bring anything else.
As the gathering continued I found the spaces in which to talk about my many experiences in Tanzania thus far, and got to hear about others’ struggles that in the end were not so different from mine. We shared feelings of isolation and sometimes manipulation because of our identities as foreigners, struggles to live into the absurdities and the margins, the notion of just carrying on no matter what. I got to hear story after story about how “just carrying on” resulted in transformations we had yet to discover about ourselves.
After this it wasn’t so hard to walk around in the evenings wrapped in a kanga- because that was just the thing I had brought to wear at night. And there were jokes and light observations about how I was “more African” than many of the Africans in the room. Those are still difficult to process. I am not African, I do not pretend to be or to embody that history. I am however changed by Africa. By Tanzania. Through no fault of my own I am learning how to be more distinctly Bernadette because of Tanzania and Tanzanians. A Bernadette who still at her core wears trousers under her kangas. A Bernadette who indeed is American, and says things that only Americans say. A Bernadette who can more than ever, find her footing in the margins, between two hard places, and manage to keep her balance.