A story in words & pictures about style in Africa.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
On the seventh day of our holiday in Lamu, my body could be satisfied by nothing other than a fat slab of cheese. No amount of bhajia, samosa, chapati, or coconut rice would cut it. So we sat outside the only duka in town that stocked Highland Cheddar, waiting for the doors to open after evening prayers.
Sitting and staring at people is nothing unusual in Lamu. It’s a national pass time; stare or be stared at. At 8.30pm, it was prime time. Shy gangs of girls in school uniform, labourers in tell-tale soiled shirts, old men in embroidered kofias, veiled women with only their eyes and hennaed feet revealed, boisterous teenagers, cart-handlers, downcast queues of donkeys, mangy cats, barefoot little boys, the odd muzungu - they all shuffled past on their way to… well, who knows? Such a display of humanity.
They all look the same I thought. Sure, they were all different ages and genders, sizes, and skin colours, but there appeared to be some kind of uniform that prevented anyone from standing out. All the men wear the same combo of shorts, shirt, and plastic sandals, all the women wear buibuis, all the kids (though cute) are non-descript. Nobody wore anything that could attract undue attention. Apparently, sartorial originality does not come at a premium on a Muslim island.
I carried my theory into the next day on a quick perusal of the local clothes shops. I figured, if nothing else, my shopping jaunt might yield some vintage surprises to take back home. No such luck. There is nothing appealing about the fashions on offer in Lamu town. I say this and I’m a Stylist – I’ll wear anything. The shops themselves are sad, cavernous holes in which brown-looking, second-hand clothes are hung in as unappealing manner as possible. It’s a wonder any sales are made at all. I left empty-handed.
I’m smart enough to understand the role of religion and conservatism in a place like this, but can’t help but feel a stir of pity for the young girls (and boys) who grow up unable to explore their sartorial creativity. There’s no experimentation here; you wear what’s there, which isn’t much. It’s a simpler way of being, less vanity and less being wrapped up in oneself and one’s looks. My Western mind finds it difficult to understand.
Swahili culture is one of the most enchanting I have ever experienced. The sounds and smells and sights associated with its people and places keep me coming back year after year, I’m mesmorized by it all. So rich is the culture, so loud does it scream, that perhaps my values of personal uniqueness have no place.
A day or so later, on a walk to the beach, a family of white tourists approached from the opposite direction. It was quite the scene – a smiling Father, a number of lithe grown daughters following, and a mother trailing behind - all sheathed in various cuts of white fabric blowing in the wind, like a troupe of Bedouin wanderers. I thought for a second that I’d stumbled onto a Vogue shoot.