Saturday, August 04, 2007

Clothing makes the (wo)man

As we all know by now, I lost my luggage on the way in to Zambia. Maybe it was my fault for being late to the plane. Maybe they pulled the luggage off the plane as a security precaution and then the waves and eddies of the general African perspective on efficiency took care of the rest. What I found most interesting is that whenever we called to check on it, we would be assured that it would be meet us at whatever small airport we were headed to next. “Oh yes, it will be on the charter flight that meets you in Kipushi.” My favorite was when Larry got off the phone, looked at me and said, “We are getting more confident that the luggage is somewhere.” I am fairly certain that the people who made these assurances knew that they were untrue when they said them. I don’t know how to analyse that. Is it a cultural priority to avoid upsetting people? Do other Africans receive such assurances as these in the spirit they were given: generous conciliation but not to be relied upon? If this is the case, then it is hard to fault a culture for placing good will between people over cold facts. Americans like their facts above all else. But, is it a leftover from colonialism to tell the White Man only what he wants to hear? That’s a little more worrisome.

Anyway, I had three tops, only one of which I could wear out in the more modest rural areas we would be visiting and a pair of pants, which would also be inappropriate. So, Debi loaned me a skirt and we went out on our first adventure in Musele. The first act of the people in Musele who greeted our bus was to give us gifts. They literally surrounded the women with chitenge: two meters of cloth, hemmed at both ends, worn as a skirt by tucking in the ends around our waists. Their sure fingers, strong with a lifetime of practice, wrapped us securely. Most of us struggled to re-wrap our skirts as they inevitably loosened with our movement. If we were lucky, a local woman would take pity on our plight and tuck it for us again. I got reasonable at it over the course of the week. I think maybe all that crafting has made my fingers dexterous.

But think of that metaphor. Not only were we surrounded into the landscape and culture of Africa, our bodies were literally encircled by African clothing. Like the art of Christo and Jean-Claude, our familiar identities were rendered new by being wrapped, like the Reichstag.

Women in Africa use the chitenge as skirts, aprons, head-wraps and as baby-carriers. I noticed that on Sundays and formal events, they were in evidence more frequently and that on particularly festive occasions, groups of women wore matching chitenge. When we met with a government official in DR Congo, he had 8 or 9 hay bale sized bundles of cloth in his office for the women to wear in the upcoming Independence Day events. I love what this says about the culture. First, it says that when there are things to celebrate (church, the digging of a new well, the arrival of a beloved statesman, welcoming visitors from Chicago) it is important to emphasize our African heritage, rather than the western influence of jeans and plain skirts with waistbands. It also says that there is strength in belonging to a group. The entire staff of DR Congo wore matching clothing and provided clothing made to our measurements in the same fabric as a gift for us to take home. It is stunning to be included in a group by that group simply because we traveled all that way to see them. They were honored and I was honored. I did not have to prove myself to be allowed into the group, either in Zambia or in DR Congo. I was loved unconditionally and clothed as a reflection of that love.

Almost every woman in the parts of Africa that I visited wore two skirts. Frequently, I saw women hand babies to each other or pick up children from the ground and casually tie the children to their backs to carry them around. This vivid display of the concept of taking a village to raise a child was impressive. Women are always prepared to care for one another's children. And children are prepared to accept direction from any adult. We saw this frequently. Arloa and I saw a little boy, about 3-years-old, step on something and hurt his foot. He cradled the foot and cried a little. His situation drew a crowd and another little girl, not much bigger than he was, assessed the situation and then calmly reached down and pulled him onto her back.

In wrapping us in chitenge, the women of Musele were taking us up onto their backs, like children. And we were children in Africa. At least, I felt like a child. Everything was new and hard to process. I have very little context for what was going on, so things didn't make sense. Certain World Vision staff took me up on their backs and helped me, particularly Jenny, who works out of the Lusaka headquarters. She would explain things that I was looking at but didn't understand far beyond simple translation. She had a sense of humor similar to mine (just a little bit wicked) and a delightful sense of joy. I loved to watch her join into the singing and dancing of the women whenever we would arrive in a new place. She extended hospitality to us everywhere we went by becoming part of the group of women who greeted us. I became particularly indebted to her when she pulled me into the procession of women dancing toward the site where the well would be dug and showed me her footwork so that I could dance, too. She told me that the words of the song were thanking God for the well that comes from Chicago. That's her all the way to right in the picture.

Jenny also facilitated the creation of my Zambian dress. In most hero stories, there is usually a moment in which the hero is stripped of the clothes she wore from home and she is given fine, new raiment's that are symbols of her new status. Consider Luke Skywalker's all-black outfit in the beginning of Return of the Jedi to signify his status as a new Jedi or Neo's ragged sweater and pants after literal nudity when he was awoken in The Matrix. A woman from Zambia named Princess Kasune Zulu used to pastor at River City and she wore the most beautiful dresses. The were cut to fit her curves perfectly and she designed them to look like high fashion. I have always harbored a secret wish to look like Princess. Losing my luggage afforded me this chance to strip away my old identity and become African, even the slightest bit. I was so pleased that the tailor took the care to line up the elements of the pattern of the fabric with the pattern of the dress: putting a wedge at the neckline and centering the fish and crustaceans at opportune spots. I think that the shape of my body is very similar to the ideal African woman's shape. Ivan, our translator in DR Congo, described the ideal as "bottle-shaped." I feel like this dress emphasizes the bottle-ness of my body in a way that American styles of jeans and t-shirts can't always do. I remember reading an article once by an Indian immigrant and the significant change of self-identity she felt when she began dressing like an American. The forgiving and lovely silk of her saris and salwar kameez(es?) that had made her feel like a woman were replaced by unflattering pants and tops that made her look chunky rather than curvaceous. What a glorious gift from a culture that values women for what their bodies actually are rather than a media-swamped culture that tries to push all women into being something other than themselves. I understand why the tradition of the American work ethic makes jeans a staple in our fashion. But the necessity of having a second suit of clothes became an unexpected re-introduction to myself as a more authentic woman. And I am grateful for that.

Amonth later, my luggage has not yet been returned to me.

Compared to the insight I was given that accompanied the gifts of clothing, I do not miss it.

1 comment:

PrincessMax said...

Photo credits:

Maggie being wrapped - Larry Van Dyke
Procession to Musele clinic dedication - Larry Van Dyke
Babies in chitenges - Arloa Sutter
Jenny and muzenge dancers - Larry Van Dyke
Zambian dress - Larry Van Dyke

My film was in my luggage, OK?