The Volunteer's new clothes


          I had heard that it is difficult to keep clothes looking clean and in good condition here. That is proving to be true. I brought four pairs of trousers with me and three are already in bad enough shape that it would portray a bad image to the Peace Corps if I continue to wear them. (We have a dress code and are supposed to maintain a professional appearance at all times in public.)

          One pair of pants got a hole in it from something protruding out of a desk at the ENS; I had that repaired and it didn't look that bad, but they came back with some of the color faded after being washed in Cape Verde. A second pair got discolored when I purchased a bottle of bleach at the store; the seal was not tight and the bottle leaked, which caused several light spots on the front. The third pair tore through one of the knees when I fell on a cobble stoned street in Cape Verde; I would have had shorts made from them, but there were stains on the upper portion in the back, so they were useless.

          It is less expensive to have garments made than to buy ready-to-wear clothing. I bought some fabric and had a pair of pants made. If they wash well, I will go ahead and have some more made with the same type of fabric. When I was in Cape Verde, I was looking around in a store that sold fabric and found a remnant of about two meters on sale for the equivalent of $1.50. I couldn't resist, so I bought it to have a shirt made.

          I took all the fabric, sample trousers, and a sample shirt to Mamadou the tailor. He is the one who made a really nice kaftan for me a few months ago. At the time, though, there was a bit of a cultural problem because he did not want to accept my money for the work he did. (He said, "You are my father. It is a gift.")

          Of course, it is important to be culturally sensitive. At the same time, it doesn't make sense that a person living in this economy should be giving away his services to somebody who can afford to pay for them. This time, I told him that I had a job for him, but I would only give it to him if I could pay for his work. He agreed.

          I got the finished products on Saturday and they look fine. I went with fabric and style that are more typical of Western than African clothing. He made faithful reproductions of the original garments. He was shy about naming his price for the work that he did, so I had to come up with a figure, which he accepted. It is probably higher than it would be if he had named a price, and I am fine with that.

          Today I wore both garments for the first time. When I was leaving the Peace Corps bureau to go home, I inadvertently put a pen into the shirt pocket, with the cap on the wrong end. Sure enough, the tip of the pen touched the bottom of the pocket and left a nice ink stain there. I did what I could to lift the ink stain when I got home, but it set in. One of the advantages of having had the shirt made, though, is that I have fabric left over, so it will be a simple matter to take the shirt to a tailor, along with a piece of extra fabric, and have the pocket replaced; the new pocket can cover the stain on the shirt itself.

           One day last week, Mamouni had dropped in to my house for lunch. Afterwards, we were leaving at the same time. I was going to the Peace Corps bureau to use the Internet. He offered to give me a ride and asked if it would be all right to stop and pick up his cousin along the way.

           When we got to the door, he called from his cell phone to let the cousin know that he was there. A few minutes later, she appeared at the gate, took one step out, saw that I was in the car, and then turned back to the house. All I had seen were her eyes, as her mulafa was pulled tightly around her face. She called Mamouni on his phone and explained that she could not ride in the car with me. I asked him what that was all about.

           Mamouni explained that in very strict interpretation of cultural values here, young people do not speak in the presence of older people. Since I was older, male, and should be respected, she would not be able to converse with Mamouni in my presence.

          Mamouni drove me to the bureau and then went back to pick her up. The following day, I told him that I understood the concept behind what had happened the day before, and I also asked, What about the fact that I wouldn't even be able to understand what she says, since she would most likely speak to him in Hassaniya?

          His answer surprised me. He said, "She thought you were an Arab." So I asked if she knew that I was an American, would that have made a difference? Mamouni said yes.

          This situation also reflects the typical relations between the sexes in the country. Women and men never address each other if they are strangers. Police frequently stand in the streets and stop motorists to check for vehicle registration papers and drivers' licenses. When a holiday is coming up and they need to raise funds for their festival expenses, they use these road checks as a means to ask the motorists for money. But they only halt, speak to, and solicit money from male drivers.

           On a different day last week, one afternoon Mamouni called to see if I was home and if he could come to visit. I told him that I was at the bureau, but that I would be leaving there soon to go home. He said he would come to pick me up, since he was in the vacinity.

           On the way home, I told him that I had intended to stop at the Chinese restaurant to pick up some tofu. Mamouni paused there so I could make the purchase. He had never heard of tofu or soybeans before, so he was curious about this new delicacy that I was bringing home. When I got in the car, he said it smelled good. When we got into the house, I showed him the tofu and asked him if he wanted to taste it. He has happily eaten my cooking before, but all he had to do was take one look at the tofu and he would have no part of it.

           Babah found work with an Algerian who paints and plasters home interiors, with an emphasis on the intricate ceiling work that is standard in the nicer houses. The arrangement was for the workers to get paid in cash at the end of each day, which is a fairly common approach.

           After the first day's work, the boss told Babah that he didn't have the money to pay him, since the owner of the property had not yet paid him. In the hopes of being paid eventually, Babah continued to work. As he explained to me, at least he was learning how to do a type of work, and once he learned it, he would be able to work independently in the same field.

           This arrangement lasted for about a month, at the end of which Babah had still not been paid. By that time, he gave up and stopped working for the guy. I can't say that I can blame him.