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Phynessa's Peace Corps Site


Clothes are one of the most interesting parts of West African culture.  They are bright and beautiful, which is what first caught my attention when I arrived.  The very most important thing about Togolese clothing is that you MUST cover your knees.  Wearing something shorter than knee-length is just not acceptable.  While they would never say anything to a white person about it, they definitely give you strange looks if your knees are showing.  There are two notable acceptions, though--when you are doing physical labor, such as riding your bike or tilling a field, or are inside your compound, which is seen as your own personal universe.
Contrary to the taboo about naked knees, naked chests are very common.  The Togolese consider breasts as purely functional and, since there has probably NEVER been a baby bottle in my village and it's just not acceptable not to have kids, it just happens that there are going to be women breastfeeding everywhere you look.  Even women who don't have babies don't think twice about walking to the pump or sitting on their porches topless.
There are a variety of things women wear, but the most common attire is a pagne (PAHN-yuh) and shirt.  Basically, a pagne is just a piece of cloth, 2 meters long by 1 meter wide, usually in some extravagant color or print.  Women typically hem it on three sides, then wrap it around themselves like you would wrap a towel around your waist.  They typically wear a "slip" under it.  That is basically a pair of bike-short-like underwear that keeps them from being totally indecent when the pagne (inevitably) unwraps itself.  In order to avoid this, some women sew a couple of strings on the sides of the pagne in order to tie it around themselves.
Pagnes are not only useful as skirts, they are sort of the West African answer to any problem.  Let's say, for instance, that someone has a baby--they just tie the baby onto their backs with a pagne.  They use pagnes as towels, tie their money in the corner of one as a purse, tie goods to be sold at the market to taxis with them, and I used one as a shower door for the week before my shower was built.  They are extremely useful.  Every time I see women with babies on their backs, I ask myself why we go through all the hassle of lugging around strollers!
As for the shirts women wear, unless it is a special occasion, they usually just wear Western shirts, such as T-shirts.  Apparently, all the clothes that groups in Europe, America, and Australia collect to be given away to Africans actually get sold in markets.  I go back and forth on my level of outrage at this.  On one hand, I think that they were intended to be gifts, yet somebody sells them here.  On the other hand, I realize that it's not a lot of money (I bought 2 Gap tank tops last weekend for 60 cents each) and it does generate some money for the Togolese vendor.

Bafilo Post Officer in Chattanooga Lookouts shirt
He was disappointed to hear that they are a baseball, not soccer, team, but liked my photo of Chatt.

The funniest thing about these t-shirts (and jeans, pants, socks, belts, shoes, skirts, etc.) that get sold in this manner is their name.  The Togolese call these things "Dead Yovo clothes."  Yovo is the Evé name for white people (it just means "white," and they assume that, since nobody would ever give away such good, not completely worn-out clothes, that they must be the clothes of dead white people!  I wonder whether they would be outraged if they found out that the clothes were actually supposed to be given to them by well-intentioned Westerners who just don't like to wear clothes with small stains or holes in them!
Since my village is Muslim, the women wear veils.  The veils range from a full hajib that covers their hair, neck, and shoulders to small woven hats that cover only their hair.  There are none of the Middle Eastern face-covering veils. Only married women wear veils, but sometimes young girls like to wear them to immitate the older women.  The veils are amazingly beautiful--colorful, sometimes with lace around the trim.
There are other clothes that are used for more special occasions.  For one, the boubou is just an oversized, formless dress that hangs loosely.  It is not really more intricate than the pagne-shirt combination, but is reserved for more public occasions because you have to invest some money into having it sewn up.  Besides the boubou, there are some very intricately tailored dresses that can be amazing!  For two dollars, a seamstress can sew a dress that is simply fantastic.  I hope to upload some photos from our swearing-in party and fashion show some day to provide some examples.
Finally, one of the most standard female attire is a pair of earrings.  From the time they are babies, girls wear earrings and they never, never go without them!
As for men's clothes, most of them are Western.  There is a common outfit that very closely resembles American men's pyjamas--a button-up shirt and pair of pants with a drawstring.  In fact, men often buy men's PJs at the Dead Yovo market and wear them to meetings or any public occasion.  They have no idea that they are PJs.  One day, I thought about explaining to someone what they were, but it then occurred to me that the idea of PJs--having a different set of clothes that you wear only to sleep in--would probably seem a bit ridiculous to them!  I just let it drop.
One of the most beautiful outfits belongs to the Muslim men who live in my area.  They wear, basically, a full-length dress with matching pants underneath.  There is beautiful embroidery around the neck extending down around the buttons.  They are simply the most gorgeous clothes and I can't wait to buy a few of them, tell them they're for my brothers back in the States who happen to be the same size as me, and then wear them somewhere that the people don't know that they're men outfits!  I figure I might just have to go to India in order to get away with it, because the women there wear a sokol-kemise that looks very similar!  The men here also often have a stiff; two-inch-tall hat that sits on their heads and matches the outfit.  Although the hats are very ornate, I'll probably forgo that part of the outfit when I bust out my version of the outfit!
The final surprise about clothes is that, during this season, everyone is bundled up!  It's the rainy season now, and the temperature is usually between 80° and 90°;  should the temperature ever drop below 75°, the locals break out coats, scarves, and even hats to put over their long sleeves!  It makes me laugh every time!