Today, I took part in a training session on how to present your best self, mainly in terms of networking. We had a week of learning and development sessions in the office, and I picked this one as I felt I needed it most. But I don’t want to talk about the course itself, rather about what one of my Rwandan colleagues said to me during one of the exercises. It was nice, but quite surprising!
In general, paying compliments simply makes people happy, and it’s a good tool to use when you are trying to connect with someone and make them feel good. The trainer asked the course participants to compliment one another to practise, and one of the ladies said something I wasn’t expecting. She praised my style of dressing. But it wasn’t in the context of being fashionable, it was meant as an appreciation for my respect for the local culture. She said that the clothes I wore showed that I understood what was considered a “proper” outfit in Rwanda, and that were I to meet people from local, rural communities, who are generally much more conservative, wearing what I was that day (a black T-shirt and a long, red skirt), they would notice that as well, and approve.
I must say I was both surprised and touched. When I moved to Rwanda, I did know already that there was a certain, accepted way of dressing, and I was prepared for that. Rwandan women don’t show too much flesh. They never wear shorts, skirts and dresses that would not reach their knees. They don’t wear very low-cut tops that would reveal their cleavages. Sure, many girls and young women wear tight jeans and T-shirts which accentuate their figures, but there are also a lot of women who still prefer traditional outfits made from the local fabric called kitenge: beautifully colourful long dresses with sleeves (usually short), and head wraps with the same pattern. In the countryside, I’ve mostly seen ladies wearing T-shirts and kangas (pieces of kitenge fabric wrapped around their waist, like a sarong, and reaching their ankles). I’ve never really felt the need to expose too much of my flesh to the world anyway, unless I’m on a beach (I really don’t get this style of wearing supershort shorts and tiny tops, on streets in cities, it’s a bit too much for my liking), so it wasn’t difficult for me to adjust to this norm. I usually wear trousers and skirts reaching well below my knees, and tops that are not too revealing, and I never considered it anything special. So it was interesting to see that it does matter, that people do notice it, and that they appreciate it.
The same colleague also told us a story of when she worked in Juba in South Sudan. She has a distinct style: bright colours (usually kitenge), heels, big cheerful earrings, and she loves hats! In South Sudan, she realised at one point that people weren’t particularly welcoming towards her. They didn’t invite her to social gatherings or into their homes, they frowned at her in church. And then it hit her: it’s her dress style that was keeping them away. It’s just not how it’s done there, women dress much more modestly, it’s all much more toned down (although they do wear kitenge there as well), so my colleague looked like a crazy, bright butterfly to the locals, and they didn’t feel they could connect with her. As soon as she swapped the heels for simple sandals and put her huge, pink earrings away, people started to smiled at her and wanted to engage with her more.
I remember my Rwandan colleagues laughing a bit about muzungu (foreigner) men wearing shorts. This is a schoolboy outfit in Rwanda, men wear long trousers, even if it’s very hot. I suppose in the West, there is much more freedom in terms of clothes people wear. Obviously, there are dress codes at events, or in offices, but generally it’s each to their own. In most Arabic countries, in turn, women are expected to fully cover their hair and bodies, and that’s what everyone knows. But in Rwanda, it somehow never occurred to me that by following the general local dress sense, and not really thinking about it much, I was actually sending a powerful message: I respect your culture. In return, I am looked at with respect as well, and with appreciation. Nice thing to discover, isn’t it? 🙂