One and a half months into her summer internship with Musana Jewelry, a non-profit that works with disadvantaged women to make jewelry that is sold around the world, Meredith has learned a few things about Ugandan culture, language, and food. She’s also gained some insight into how one should really pack for a sojourn in Africa.
“Do I look like a pioneer?” One of my fellow volunteers and housemates recently asked as she got dressed in the morning. This is a daily question for the females in the house: Do we look like we just forged a river and successfully avoided dysentery?
As evidenced by the volunteers I live with and the American tourists I see around Uganda, we’ve all seen the same images of mzungus (“foreigners”) abroad in Africa working on development projects in small communities—and they highly influenced our clothing packing decisions. The dress code, we observed, is an ankle length peasant dress with a t-shirt underneath, sturdy adventure sandals or TOMS shoes, hippie headband, and probably a patterned cross-body bag to carry around our water bottle, hand sanitizer, digital camera, and other African essentials.
But upon arriving in Uganda, my fellow volunteers and I quickly realized how out of place we looked. Everyone we work with, from the metal worker designing tags for Musana Jewelry to the governmental official reviewing our non-profit application, is dressed in business casual attire—slacks and a button-down shirt for men, a pencil skirt, heels, and blouse for the ladies.
This doesn’t mean our peasant dress uniforms are categorically a bad choice—dressing conservatively is important, especially in more remote villages. However, modesty can be just as easily achieved with a more professional look. (In fact, the first time I debuted a more put-together look, one of Musana’s advisors commented that I was finally dressing “like an African.”)
So, today I’m showing you two sides of dressing for Uganda: “peasant casual” and “business casual.” Both are fine, but I sure wish I had more of the latter in my suitcase. My advice: If you plan on spending an extended period of time working in Uganda (or probably many other African countries), don’t leave your pencil skirt at home.