Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why do Peace Corps volunteers dress like they're homeless?

Why do all Peace Corps volunteers dress like they are homeless? I have been asked this question a few times; most recently by a middle class, white South African. At the time, i chuckled along with her, recognizing the comment to be based on truth, and then the conversation drifted elsewhere.

I suppose i forgot all about it until a few weeks ago, when i arrived once again in country. This time, however, i am not a volunteer and looked forward to wearing clothes that were a little more fashionable, maybe a little jewelry and occasional makeup. Well, it didn't take long for me to remember why i used to dress like i was a step above homeless- i received so much attention, especially from men. So much negative attention, in fact, that after the fourth day of enduring it, i decided then and there that it was back to frumpville for me. Unless i am to be in the company of a man the entire time i am in town, i now wear t-shirts and scrub pants, a headscarf and no makeup. So far, my plan has worked.

Especially when i first arrived at post, just by nature of my position, i attracted a lot of attention. Not all of it was negative, but coming from the States, i was used to privacy. People do not openly stare, make comments, ask questions or leer at you on a regular basis. Here, that is pretty normal, and could be very overwhelming, especially after a stressful week at school, language barriers or breakdowns in communication, donkeys eating your garden, or whatever the case may be.

Although South African society in general does value sharp dressing, those living in villages often cannot support this lifestyle and thus dress in torn, ripped and ill-fitting clothing. Peace Corps volunteers do not live far above this income bracket, either, on the measley stipend. So, dressing like this, some might say homeless, is a nice way to blend in with our neighbors. It also acts as a theft deterrent. Sort of. We are always targets wherever we go, no matter how we dress, what we have or don't have; firstly because we are white, and secondly because we are American. Truly, having white skin in this country means everyone else thinks you are rich. This is probably another reason for the unwanted sexual attention.

I don't flatter myself to think i am just that attractive that men swarm me like bees do a freshly blooming flower. They think i have money. And really, who doesn't want a sugar mama or daddy? Doing my best to stay under the proverbial radar makes my life, volunteer or civilian, so much easier.

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