Color was everywhere. Bright, vibrant reds and canary yellows, vivid greens and intense purples, fiery oranges and royal blues. Headwraps of the same fabric matched the dresses. In a dry dusty country, where rain fell only a few weeks each year, the women of all ages were the flowers. The buildings were second only to the women in their rainbow of painted signs and symbols. Bright blue stucco walls and striped curtains covered the doorways.
The men wore "ordinai're", the subdued blue or gray-striped cloth made into a suit called Chias. Only the old men wore white, while the beggar boys dressed in black. The young men dressed in discards from America. They bought these wonderful western clothes in the "Fuki-ji", the open-air market filled with American castoffs. In a country with no textile industry and almost no manufacturing, used tee shirts and jeans were luxury goods. This land of the surreal was Senegal, West Africa. Located just south of the Sahara, its existence is threatened by the encroaching desert. Most Americans couldn't find this country on a map. Yet in this nation of six million people, we are like gods.
Every American the Senegalese people meet seems as rich as royalty. How else could we afford to fly across the ocean just to visit Senegal? Yet in our dress and manners we appear poor. Our beige, khaki and dull denim clothing looks dreary and tired. The richness of America is rarely seen since most Americans in Senegal are Peace Corps volunteers.
Outside of Dakar, the capital, live the farmers. Their homes are compact little villages of mud brick huts with grass roofs. My tour guide is my son, a Peace Corps agricultural volunteer.
The lives of the villagers haven't changed much in a hundred years. The twentieth century has given them plastic buckets and woven fabric. The colorful cloth the women use to make their clothing is purchased in neighboring Gambia. Gambians are masters in the art of tie-dying fabric the Senegalese will buy. The villagers travel across the border on horse carts. They haggle with cloth merchants, then buy an entire bolt of fabric. Back in the village, the local tailor sets his antique Singer sewing machine outdoors. Without patterns, he designs and sews each garment. Looking like sets of triplets, children from the same family run about the village in identical new outfits.
On her wedding day, each bride receives a wardrobe of twelve beautiful dresses. These colorful garments are worn for guests, on feast days and religious holidays. Dresses are part of the bride price a man must pay before the wedding day. Until a man can afford to buy these twelve beautiful dresses and build his own hut, he must remain among the cadre of single men.
The women of the village do almost all of the village labor. They rise at sunrise to pound millet and prepare breakfast for their families. After everyone is fed, they haul water from the well, carrying it on their heads in pails that weigh 70 pounds. The women and girls weed gardens, plant, and harvest the crops while the little boys tend the animals. Men do little labor since most will only work for wages. There are few jobs in Senegal and most pay very little. From sunrise to sunset the women wear clothes that look more like rags than dresses. The pieces of fabric tied around their waists stay in place without benefit of buttons or zippers. A ragged tee shirt completes the costume.
This is how Hodja and Lebbe, the wives of the chief, were dressed when I arrived in the village, yet their smiles told me I was a welcome guest. At mid-day all the women looked dusty, and the hundred-degree heat made their dark skin glisten.
By contrast my khaki slacks and tee shirt confused them. Even after I removed the motorcycle helmet, there was doubt about my gender. I beat a hasty retreat to the hut to change into more appropriate clothing. Being the ever-practical tourist I wore a brown wrap-around cotton skirt and a beige tee shirt. With my new Senegalese flip-flops, my outfit was complete.
As the sun sets, the temperature drops to 80 and the village takes on a new life. Before the evening meal everyone bathes in the privacy of fenced backyards. Gone are the ragged work clothes and in their place are the beautiful dresses that the women save for the social part of the day. Dinner is a short-lived affair. Men and older boys use their fingers to eat millet or rice from a communal bowl. At a separate bowl the women and children eat the same way. Everyone dines squatting on the ground or sitting cross-legged on a mat.
In the evening the young wear their finest western clothes. Jean jackets, leather-studded vests, and American tee shirts now look out of place. The older men wear long white caftans and small skullcaps.
In the evening the women and girls are the most colorful. Slipping into wide-sleeved boubous with matching headscarves, they adorn themselves with costume jewelry.
From my bundle of gifts I offered them costume jewelry, and decorative combs. They pinned the earrings to their dresses, wrapped scarves around their arms and legs. For some reason they painted only their bottoms lips with the red and purple lipsticks I had brought. Despite being devout Muslims, their smiling faces looked like children on Christmas morning.
Properly adorned, the women decided it was time for pictures. Balancing babies, sans diapers, on their laps, the women posed unsmiling for their portraits. Only the children giggled when the flash went off.
I spent three days in the village, pulling water and pounding the millet by day, dancing to the drumbeat of buckets and pans at night. When I finally left, they presented me with a gift of forty pounds of raw peanuts. As I swung my leg over the back of my son's motorcycle, the village Holy Man came from his hut to pray for our safe return. Surrounded by people of all ages, we extended our open hands and asked for Allah's blessing.
A week later I stood in the hall of the High School where I teach. I noticed the dullness of American clothing, all denim, gray and black. We live in a wealthy nation, yet most of us dress in muted colors that make us almost invisible.
In a few months my son will come home with the boubou the village tailor is making for me. It is made of purple, blue and white tie-dyed fabric I bought in Gambia. Maybe someday I'll have the courage to wear it to work. Hmmm. . . maybe on my next birthday, when I turn fifty.
Maggie Bartley has taught History for twenty-five years, and is also a historical researcher and writer. She has just completed her second Historical Suspense novel and is actively seeking a publisher. Her time is split between teaching in Maryland and writing at her two hundred year-old farmhouse in northern New York. When sitting in front of the computer becomes too much, she relaxes by practicing Yoga.
E-mail Maggie at
Other Opinions Articles...