Thursday, May 3, 2012

on aid & Fashion, updated

Ok, so I’m not Kate  Moss or project runaway (unless you catch me really early in the morning, then YOU might want to run-a-way….) but I like to be professional, and that includes dressing appropriately.

The good news is that my work rarely if ever requires a suit. (I don’t even know if I still fit into most of mine, you get the idea), but it does require ”appropriateness” which is not always easy to nail.

First of all, for any newbie on the development/ aid consultant market, you should know that what gives you away to the locals, and makes the rest of us loose respect for you, (and by locals I am using a very loose definition here, including  the expats that LIVE in a place as opposed to those just visiting),

-I was saying-

what gives you away is the shorts, sandals and short sleeve shirt (which, by the way, if it’s got any hoola going you are probably history in any ones’ cool book)

I know it’s darn hot. I know that even with ten degrees less back at home you’d be wearing shorts and sandals, but funnily enough, in most of “these” places people just don’t use shorts, so neither should you. And I know the offices are falling apart, and that there are geckos climbing on your walls, but for the most part, if you look around, everyone else is wearing a summery but formal attire. You wouldn’t wear shorts to an office in NY in the summer, so there is no reason to expect that shorts are acceptable here. Usually if you are having an “office day” and will only be meeting with staff it’s ok to tone it down a little. Pay attention on you first day there, look at what both locals and internationals are wearing, and if anyone sticks out like a sore thumb be sure not to follow that example.

‘Be respectful’ doesn’t just apply to religious principles.

You want to look professional,  but you also don’t want to look like Ms. lady ambassador that just walked out of Airforce One and doesn’t want to get her nails cracked, even if sometimes they do, so avoid the heavy jewelry and leave the pearls home.

Then there are the visits to the beneficiaries: the internally displaced camps, the indigenous communities, homes for abused women.... again, I don’t care if its 40 degrees, shorts are usually not only disrespectful, but long pants (or a skirt) will probably spare you the  mosquito bites. When in Rome do like the Romans, you are unlikely to find anyone there with shorts, so skip them. 

AC/DC t-shirts? I tend to think that if you are going to stay  there a while and actually develop a relationship, then you have a right to be who you are, but if you are just visiting, like I do these days as a passing through consultant, then common diplomatic courtesy applies, yes, even in camps.

The tricky part is when you have a mix, and you want to look decent to see a Minister, but not wearing shoes that could pay for a whole months rent of the family you are visiting afterwards in a camp, that's when it  gets hard.

It gets even trickier when there are religious issues involved, like the obvious, countries where women use the veil. I never understood why foreigners who didn’t have-to would subject themselves to these attires, but soon after I started working in Somalia I realized it just made my life easier. So I carefully chose a couple of matching top and bottoms, only to discover that you only wear matching when in mourning. I also realized how hard it was to balance the notebooks, the camera and the veil in place. But hey, this is why you get hazard pay.

I also lost my suitcase once while visiting Yemen. You try buying underwear from a bearded man wearing a knife or jahiba on his belt

“please, sir, can I see the pink ones with dots?”

The only decent thing I could find where hippy baggy pants, so that was me for two weeks…. sore thumb sticking out all around.

Being a consultant buys you some slack. You don’t have to wear a suit, but remember you are working, not on holidays, and what you choose to wear says something not just about you, but also about how you perceive them.

Slowly you start building up your basics: Loose long tops;  scarves that can double up as veils if need be; thin black slacks that can be dressed up or down; Simple flats, and son on, until one day you find yourself in my current predicament:

This morning I have to go meet with some Ministers, (black long slack and flats, easy), followed by a visit to a Candomble territory, bastions of an ancient traditional African religion brought over by the slaves, which also served as strongholds of resistance and preservation of black culture. According to my "research" black is a no-no in their books, (bye bye black slacks), the hippy loose white top, intended for the field visits and ideal for this scenario seems inappropriate for the first part of the day.

F*ck it, government meeting is with the Secretaria to defend ethnicity and race, so they should be fine with my ethnic attire. I'm going Orisha 'hoola' today


Soli said...

Great read as always, will keep in mind on my next trip to look "local" ;-)

Diana said...

And I thought I had a hard time preparing suitcases!!!
Great story as usual....