Sunday, February 24, 2008

Girl in a Dutch cloth dress

I had been wanting one of the local “Dutch cloth” dresses that the traditional Batswana women wear around here since I noticed the last fall. When I discovered that Mma. Mnzava did dressmaking, I got her to make me one. We were a few months getting our schedules in sync to get measurements and fittings done but I got my dress on Friday. As I had been mostly wearing either the dress I got for my birthday this year or a Tanzanian/pan-African designed dress since I got here, I was excited to have something new. It's a lovely blue and white number. Totally not a colour that I'd normally wear but Rob and I are both really pleased with how it looks. I was reading a stupid romance novel that was lying around the house recently that described someone's dress as “conservative yet figure-flattering” and openly scoffed at the idea that such a garment might exist. Well, eating my words now. This dress is the stuff!

So, I wore it Sunday morning. Got several comments from church-goers on how nice I looked. The best, though, was when I went to the ATM after church. There's a security guard at the ATM that I have recently begun to greet when I see her, since I see her just about every time I go to Galo Mall. Anyhow, we greeted each other but, this day, she started to talk. She said I looked very nice in my dress. I thanked her, told her how much I liked it, that it was comfortable but also sharp-looking. She said that it suited me. I proceeded to the ATM and, much to my surprise, she asked where I was from and we started chatting. I was pleased that we'd made it to this level of chattiness; it's always nice to feel socially acceptable for chitchat in a new country. When we had been quiet for a moment, she said, “You know, I have never seen a white woman wearing the traditional dress.” I paused a moment before replying, “You know... I don't think I have either. Huh.” Then we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

It made me think about how something as small as wearing a traditional dress can open up conversations. It also made me realize that I had really been unobservant about what types of people I had seen wearing the “Dutch cloth” dresses. It hadn't occurred to me that there might be anything radical about my doing so. Not that I think now that it is a radical thing. But I have occasionally contemplated what impact my adoption of local styles might have on locals, whether it would be a flattery or if they'd think “Who does she think she is, dressing like a Motswana?” I try to interpret what people's facial expressions mean when they see me dressed traditionally.

Now, I'm also thinking that I probably shouldn't worry about it too much. Frankly, people probably think what they are inclined to think before they even see me. Like the ATM guard - she and I had a a bit of a rapport before I even showed up in the dress. She liked me beforehand and reacted positively accordingly. I suppose if there were folk who resented the presence of a foreigner in their country, they'd also negatively to anything I wore.

Wow. I am probably way overthinking this. Ah well... such is the bumpy (mental) road of navigating other cultures.

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