The whole covering up thing
So, everyday I wake up and climb completely naked out of bed. I have your attention now, right? Well, at least for a minute. Not long after that I am getting dressed to go out into the village. Mind you, Shimoni is much more modern than Mkwiro. You only have to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. Only! In Mkwiro (the island village) you have to have your head covered as well. Or they will stone you. Literally.
Ok, maybe they would only stone you if you were in Zanzibar. But it would be pretty close. My headscarf slipped once in class and a 7 year old chastised me harshly enough that I made sure it never happened again. I was also brought back to the days of my first visit to a rural coastal village in Kenya, about three years ago. My homestay mother, an ancient woman who spoke not a lick of English, ripped my kanga off of my body because I wasn’t wearing second one underneath it. A SECOND kanga??! In 100 degree heat…with 100% humidity…I had literally passed out because of dehydration and I still wasn’t getting it right.
But that’s another story. This is the story about Shimoni, a village that is ‘modern’, however, when you walk around in nothing but bangs and a long sleeve shirt, you still get dirty looks. Compared to when I walk into the village with a headscarf, tied up as shown below, and I get many more welcome greetings.
When I dress like this, I am told “Umependeza!”, which means, “You look smart!”, which means, “You look dern good woman!” I feel like a crazy person, and when you are wearing three different pieces of fabric, a strong gust of wind can almost undress you completely (remember the stones) and freak out accordingly.
However, I am welcomed into people’s homes, someone even bought me LUNCH the other day. I am called Fatuma by people, and asked if I’m a real Mzungu Muslim. I reply truthfully, no, I am not Muslim. To which they answer “Ohhh you’re Christian.” It’s a statement, you are either one or the other. Trying to explain that you are ‘spiritual’ is sometimes interpreted as ‘I’m into witchcraft and devilwork’. So, I usually just try to speak KiSwahili and people laugh at me and then I go along with my day.
I’m actually really glad I’ve never been fervently religious or fervently agnostic, because this would be really hard either way. I like to think I’m coasting the line between being culturally sensitive and ignorantly religious. I have to say I haven’t gotten anything negative by dressing the part, except very sweaty, and only good things from trying to fit in. I even once had a man come up to me and say thank you. He was genuinely impressed at my effort. I felt really good. I feel really good, I have a lot of friends in the village now.
And I also can’t say I feel oppressed. I feel the exact opposite of oppressed. When I dress like a Mzungu, I get snide, even disgusting remarks from men. Now I am treated as an equal. My mind screams that this is wrong, I should be empowering myself! But I realize now empowerment isn’t forcing society to look at your skin. Empowerment is trying, its putting yourself out there, testing the limits. I would be oppressed if I stayed in my room naked all day, I would be alone, I wouldn’t have a voice. I’m still working it out, but for now I say it’s a good fit.