Sunday, January 16
Although we’ve left Senegal (I’m writing this on the plane home), I feel remiss in not writing before about the Senegalese ladies’ attire. It consists of long flowing robes (which I believe can be assembled from various components) and a often matching head piece that can sometimes be a simple scarf but more commonly is a cloth tied up so that it looks more like a stylish hat — a nod to fashion rather than modesty. Most striking are the wonderfully colored and patterned fabrics. Often the women themselves are lovely, with high cheekbones and the elegant bearing of models (or people who’ve learned to carry all manner of items on their heads.) But even ordinary-looking women impressed us with their costumes. Men too have traditional outfits — long robes and the little hats whose shape I’m tempted to describe as pillbox. But only a small percentage of the men wear these, whereas it often seemed to us that 90 percent or more of the women dressed traditionally.
Our young friend Laura’s take on this difference between the sexes was nuanced. She felt the Senegalese women, like most human females, enjoyed looking good. But Laura had grown somewhat critical of the slavish devotion to using identical fabrics for one’s gown and headgear. The ladies virtually never tried anything more creative, she complained.
She also pointed out that wearing Western garb — even drab, prosaic clothes such as those worn by most men — was seen as a sign of sophistication. But in a male-dominant society such as Senegal, the men were most apt to have access to that. Laura suggested that many women dressed as they did because it was their only option.
How ironic, we thought. In their outfits, the ladies looked to us like tropical birds. In the dreary, desperate looking country villages or the post-apocalyptic urban settings, they added splashes of color and theater that we, at least, applauded. It’s a challenge to take good photos of people in West Africa, but Steve became obsessed with trying to capture good photos of the ladies, such as the following: