What Not To Wear
When you take the oath to become a Peace Corps volunteer, you swear to operate under conditions of hardship (if necessary) to provide skills and aid in the development of your host country. And throughout its 50 year history, Peace Corps has exemplified this committment by operating in underdeveloped, impoverished, and sometimes unstable host countries. Throughout its 50 year history, most posts have been evacuated at some point or another. War, coup de tas, natural disasters, civil conflict, epidemics, and acts of terrorism are the normal culprits. I’ve met an RPCV who was evacuated via helicopter from her post in Bolivia, and another who hid in a Police Station Basement i until the Navy Seals picked him up when Putin invaded Ukraine. Many of the education volunteers in the 2015 cohort above me were volunteers evacuated from West Africa during the Ebola Epidemic who reapplied to teach in Malawi. But posts are not abandoned lightly. despite the civil conflict currently raging in Mozambique, Peace Corps is maneuvering site placement and regulating travel to keep volunteers in country. And as soon as the worst is over, Peace Corps comes right back. Currently the first waves of volunteers are returning to Nepal (after the earthquake), Burma (political unrest), and West Africa. Even Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, famous for its cultural pacifism, and widely considered one of the safest Peace Corps posts, was evacuated in the early 1990’s. Not for political instability, but for dress code violations.
Dr. Banda, Malawi’s first President (dictator), who ruled after its independence from the United Kingdom instituted many policies that aimed at separating Malawi from western powers. Among them was a dress code, women were forbidden from wearing trousers and skirts; exclusively donning chitenje. Chitenje are the traditional Malawian cloths, brightly patterned, which are tied around the waist. Normally they are worn over a long skirt, providing multiple layers of modesty. Girls wear chitenje wrapped low around their hipbones (showing off thier pre-maternal figure), expecting mothers wear them high, covering thier breasts, when they wish to announce thier pregnancy/cover their baby bump (nobody ever talks about pregnancy in Malawi, babies are always a “surprise”), and ladies wear them tied at the waist. In the 90’s Peace Corps Malawi was kicked out of the country because some of the female volunteers were seen to be violating this dress code. In my mind, this perfectly summarizes Malawian culture. They’re pretty chill about most things, but if you don’t “look sharp” all hell breaks loose.
Today things are more lenient. As women gain greater equality they are starting to embrace western fashions. In the regional capitols of Blantyre, Mzuzu, and Lilongwe, it’s common to see women wearing trousers and skirts, some of which even (*gasp) hit just above the knee. But in the rural villages in which Peace Corps operates, no woman of any virtue would dream of exposing her sultry kneecaps. And so, I try and conform to these standards.
First thing first, shout out to all the Malawian women who perform Herculean feats of physical strength, carrying hundred pound sacks of maize on their heads, toiling away in cassava fields, and who slave away in the sweltering heat, inhaling thick smoke, and handling burning coals with their bare hands in the kitchen to feed their families (most of the time with a baby on her back and one on the way), for doing it in a chitenje. You are my heroes. I am such a pansy. I don’t like wearing chitenje. They restrict your movement and make you take dainty little baby steps. I’m not sure how Malawian women navigate stairs or hills, although they certainly don’t seem bothered by it. Then there’s the constant risk of the inept wearer tying it incorrectly, and the thing falling off unexpectedly. I heard a horror story about a girl who’s chitenje fell off when she had a bucket of water on her head! The poor thing just stood there until an agogo came to the rescue and tied it back on. But needless to say, it was a topic on bush radio for the rest of her service. Which is why I only wear chitenje layered with a skirt or leggings, which is a hell of a lot of fabric in the Sub-Saharan sun. You try riding a bike 30k with a towel wrapped around your waist and you’ll get the picture. Finally, since I’m a lady blessed with a pair of hips, I wear my chitenje wrapped around the small of my waist, which leads people to assume that I’ve already popped out a few kids. Not that I mind, I have to explain why I’m 23 and unmarried all the time anyway.
So I only really ever wear chitenje when I’m attending traditional village events and important meetings at the office. Or when I’m running around my house in leggings or shorts, someone knocks at the door, and I have to cover up real quick. Most days I wear long skirts instead. I have it all sorted out now. On days I’m trekking out into the field, monitoring tree plots, laboring in the nursery, or doing aquaculture work, I wear full, pleated peasant skirts paired with athletic leggings. Sure they’re more likely to catch on sticks and brambles, or get burned when I cook over a woodstove, but they allow for a full range of movement. If I can lift a knee to my chest and clamber up the side of a mountain while preserving my Malawian modesty, I’m good to go. Plus I’m starting to love how they look paired with a baseball cap.
If I’m just hanging out in the village, I wear soft cotton maxi skirts and dresses. surprisingly, I’m starting to love it. Malawian used clothing markets are this thrift shopping enthusiast’s idea of heaven. I love digging through heaps of dirty clothing on market day, and pulling out that one, perfect, bohemian treasure. My closet is full of flowy, beachy dresses in bright prints, which I pair with dangling wooden earrings, my cow bone necklace shaped like a fish, and enough chunky bracelets to disguise my ugly athletic watch. Peace Corps volunteers are notorious for being dirty all the time. And most days it’s true that my hair is greasy, legs hairy, feet filthy, and I may or not be wearing underwear (good for preventing yeast infections!). I can’t even remember the last time I wore makeup. But somehow, it’s hard to wear a pretty dress and not feel feminine.
The tricky part of Malawian fashion comes down to athletic apparel. Running is an unheard of pastime in Malawi (why would you ever labor for fun?), but for the most part people are accepting of weird Americans jogging past their cassava fields. But for the lady runners, it’s a bit more complicated. The standard athletic uniform for us is long leggings paired with running shorts, with a high necked T shirt that covers your shoulders. This apparal is acceptable as long as you are running somewhere, but not a second afterwords. Playing futball? Fine. Going to the borehole after the game? absolutely not! I even get strange looks from people if I slow for a walk on my morning jogs. It’s great motivation to keep moving! For a bit I was stretching this loophole to breaking point, wearing loose trousers or athletic apparal around my house and immediate neighbors. Until I was corrected in true Malawian fashion. One day I was leaving my house for a meeting wearing a long dress and jacket, and a neighbor told me “you are dressed beautifully like a true Malawian woman, you look very fat!” Translation: stop wearing those trashy American clothes and accept that you live in Malawi now. Also, congratulations! You are getting very fat!
All in all, I don’t mind conforming to Malawian cultural dress codes. I figure that if Malawian women can do it their whole lives, I can suck it up for two years. While I cheat an appropriate amount, it gets pretty damn hot here, I actually like wearing skirts and dresses. A girl can spend a whole day digging fish ponds, have knarley looking feet, manly forearms, and a next-level farmers tan and still want to look like a lady. Plus, despite how much I complain about them, chitenje are actually very beautiful. I’m incredibly grateful to be serving in a country where my greatest danger is committing a dress code violation.