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expat style watch

May 31, 2011

Summer is just around the bend, and that means that what what internships and research proposals, the young expat population of this town is a doublin’ by the day.  Due to the high publicity of the northern conflict in it’s later years, Gulu has experienced a swell of NGOs and with it an unusually high expat concentration for a small, relatively remote town.  I can’t complain as I am one of the crowd and fellow foreigners offer familiar connections as well as the availability of things like pizza and lattes.  But the real advantage of the foreign presence is the superb people watching one can partake in, particularly in the fashion realm.  When a westerner prepares to travel to UG, there are many wardrobe considerations to take into account that may alter one’s normal attire.  Packing space may be limited, one is entering a culture where modesty is expected, the climate is different.  The resulting outfit combinations are often entertaining.  Let’s just judge a book by its cover, shall we?

The “Boy-Scouts-Trained-Me-Well” Expat

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If this expat has learned one thing in life, it’s the Boy Scout’s mantra: BE PREPARED. This traveler ain’t takin’ no chances.   REI has outfitted them to survive the apocalypse in khaki hues and water resistant flair. The daily stylings of a “Boy-Scouts-Trained-Me-Well” has transformational capabilities that would make Megatron jealous. Calves getting a little toasty in the afternoon heat?  Thank heavens you can zip those pant legs right off and enjoy the breeze! In assembling an outfit of this style, the main goal to keep in mind is maximizing your pocket count.  You never know what might happen “in the field” and you’ve got to have the resources to save the day. Someone’s got a paper cut?  “I’ve got a bandaid!  Hold on…other pocket…nope, I think it’s in the one on my vest…wait, maybe it’s attached to my hat…”

The “I’m-Ready-To-Run-A-Marathon” Expat

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A close cousin to the “Boy-Scouts-Trained-Me-Well,” the “I’m-Ready-To-Run-A-Marathon” takes the same basic principle of element preparedness, nixes the earth tones and adds a spandex twist.  This expat follows a strict dress code of running shoes and athletic wear and has a high-energy go-getter aura.  Accessories include water bottles, sports watches, and sunblock. For the most dedicated, camelbaks ensure constant hydration. This expat is handy to have around if afternoon tea is a little late in coming as they typically have a powerbar or two tucked up their sleeve.

The “I’m-One-With-Mother-Earth” Expat

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While the “Boy-Scouts-Trained-Me-Well” may shop at REI, the “I’m-One-With-Mother-Earth” prefers fair-trade shops, the clothing aisle of Whole Foods, or anywhere that carries hemp and/or bamboo textiles.  The “I’m-One-With-Mother-Earth” is likely in Uganda after reading that it is believed to be the birthplace of humankind and has pilgrimaged to commune with the motherland.  A marked level of “flowiness” is essential to communicating an ethereal spirit.  Scarves, bell sleeves, and drapesy skirts are key, as well as anything marketed as yoga apparel.  While, due to gender norms surrounding skirts and scarves, this look is perhaps more pronounced in the female form, males can take on the same flowy feel by means of their head and facial hair choices.  A string of earthen beads never hurt, and speaking in gentle tones and smelling like patchouli also adds to the vibe.

The “I’m-In-Africa” Expat

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 This expat is stoked about souvenirs.  Paper beads? Tie dye mumu? Kitenge print purse? Beaded leather sandals? Tiny braids in the hair? You betcha! Bold geometric prints are favorable and ones featuring game animals are pure gold.  If this look can be summed up in one word, it is: enthusiasm.  An unfortunate trend of the most daring “I’m-In-Africa” ‘s is the tailor fitted mumu.  That’s right, none of this swimming in a sack of fabric nonsense.  This mumu has been altered to hug your curves and falls just above the knee. Get it in hot pink and you’ve got real sassy enthusiasm.  Mumus aside, ladies really have the upper hand on this style.  I myself have envied a well fashioned kitenge dress or two.  The expat male however, has a tough time thriving in the “I’m-In-Africa” look.  Not only are there less accessory options available to him, but unlike his local counterpart, it is remarkably difficult for him to pull off kitenge clothing.  I’m not saying it is an impossibility. It has been done.  On older, rather eccentric gentlemen, it can be endearing.  If the specimen is younger, it helps if he already has a unique style like say, gauges or interesting hair.  But take generic-jeans-and-t-shirt-Joe-from-Ohio and slap on an ill-fitting button-up emblazoned with lions and zebras and you’ve got a sorry look, sonny.  Add some matching trousers and…oh dear…

The “I-Don’t-Want-To-Offend-Anyone” Expat

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The “I-Don’t-Want-To-Offend-Anyone” marries pure practicality with exceeding effort towards cultural appropriateness.  This produces an outfit you would never be caught dead in back in your home country.  It has an earnest, wholesome feel to it. A classic go-to combo for an “I-Don’t-Want-To-Offend-Anyone” is a basic crew neck tee (preferably advertising a social justice cause), an ankle length skirt, crocs, and a bandana.  Alternately, one could don a full set of scrubs, no mind to whether the setting is a medical office or a wedding.  This look is best suited for short stays, ones in which you are too busy paintin’ houses to pick up on the looks of scowl from the local young thangs your age in skinny jeans and stilettos.  It should be noted that the “I-Don’t-Want-To-Offend-Anyone” is closely related to the “I’m-In-Africa” and stays of more that a few weeks often follow this natural evolution.

The “It’s-Ironic-I’m-Dressed-Like-A-Preschool-Teacher” Expat

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This expat has successfully subverted the often troublesome necessity of wearing modest clothing by wearing dorky modest clothing.  At first glance, this look may appear effortless.  Blindly stick your hand into the back of your mother’s closet.  Score a pair of ankle-length coolots from any of the used clothing vendors in the market.  It is, however, a style executed with scandalous precision.  It is the extra touches that make it or break it- the tattoos, the piercings, the half smoked cigarette in hand.  Being European helps.  Having an accent helps more.  One must don an edgy haircut, perhaps so daring that is vaguely reminiscent of a mullet.  But dear readers, heed caution.  This look is not for amateurs.  With a FoMullet and a floral jumper, one can go from ironic to unfortunate real fast.  And no amount of cigs can help you then.

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So which expat fashion persona do I take after, you may ask?  Perhaps a smattering.  I love a good REI scratch-and-dent sale just as much as the next “Boy-Scouts-Trained-Me-Well,” and I’ve got the chacos to prove it.  I refuse, however, to sport the zipper pants.  The line must be drawn somewhere and for me that line is the zipper that runs across one’s knees.  I may throw on a flowy scarf on my better days, but pure laziness and a ponytail of greasy hair often produces an “I-Don’t-Want-To-Offend-Anyone” look.  I fully enjoy perusing the used clothing markets for vintage finds and I do love a good 90’s floral print, but I keep my distance from the jumpers.  It’s dangerous trying to pull off “It’s-Ironic-I’m-Dressed-Like-A-Preschool-Teacher” when you are a preschool teacher.  And while I haven’t given in yet, I must admit, the comfort factor of those tie dye mumus is awfully tempting. I mean, I am in Africa, after all…

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    May 31, 2011 11:46 pm

    This post made me laugh so hard…I haven’t visited Africa, but have heard several friends tell similar stories. Great post!

    By the way, how is the water bottle house coming? I’ve been lurking for a while, sorry!

    • June 1, 2011 6:57 pm

      Thanks for reading! The water bottle house is coming along great – painting started today. I’ll post pictures soon!

  2. Kyle N permalink
    June 1, 2011 2:05 pm

    So, out of curiosity, how would it fit in if we dressed like we do for work here in the US? Would a mzungu make it worse by wearing slacks, button-up, and maybe a tie?

    • June 1, 2011 7:02 pm

      Well then you’d just be Uganda classy! Especially if your shoes were extra shiny and your tie was a few inches shorter than usual.

  3. June 1, 2011 4:31 pm

    I just laughed out loud in the Whitworth library. Thanks for sharing a bit of joy.

  4. Jeff Upton permalink
    June 1, 2011 4:34 pm

    Love the post, Elizabeth! Very funny satire. You remind me how important it is to keep a sense of humor when traveling.

  5. June 1, 2011 4:54 pm

    Love it. Uganda’s one of the easiest places to dress, imo, I love the knee-length skirt professional women often wear.

  6. Ana permalink
    June 2, 2011 5:02 pm

    Ha! Sometimes you gotta just embrace the fact that there’s no way to blend in. However, I too draw the line at a zipper across the knees 🙂 Very entertaining..

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