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What to Wear in Africa...

 

Edited by Evelyn Hannon

Over the years readers have submitted their advice on appropriate ways to dress as women travel the world. When thinking about Africa in general, the consensus is that dressing modestly and conservatively is key especially outside of large city centers. Here are tips from Journeywoman readers around the world. Some you will agree with, others will not coincide with your particular point of view. Our goal is to publish as many viewpoints as possible and then leave it to our readers to find their place of comfort. If you have additional clothing advice, please send it in an email to: editor@journeywoman.com. It would be very much appreciated.

P.S. If you are looking for clothing advice in other parts of the world, please click here.

 

C countries

I traveled in Cameroun. My advice is to be modest. Non-African women already stand out so don't make yourself obvious. Stick to tops with cap sleeves and a reasonable cleavage line; stay away from short shorts and miniskirts. Research the religious influences of the regions you're visiting - areas where Western religion is the norm are more apt to accept Western-style dress, but the Muslim areas are less forgiving. Modesty is the key.
Carole, Ottawa, Canada

While it may not seem to matter what you wear on first glance, please know that only prostitutes and school boys wear shorts in Cameroun. It is important to keep your knees covered here. The Kaba (muu-muu) is really the perfect outfit to wear. Simply modify it to have many pockets to hide things in. A local tailor can do this for you. Wearing a muu-muu you'll be glad when you disembark from the bush taxi desperate to pee with no cover in sight that you don't have to pull down any pants.
Coral, Canada

G countries

I travelled in Ghana. It is very hot and humid there. I wore cotton and gauze garments from home that were usually two piece outfits with below the knee skirts and loose blousey tops. After a couple of weeks, I sometimes wore what the locals wore, beautifully printed cotton caftans picked up at various marketplaces. I either pinned my hair back or wore a headscarf; the humidity made this a practical choice for straight, lank caucasian hair. I am 61 years old and plump. Luckily, my African hosts admire both age and female curvaceousness! I found this conservative approach to clothing to be comfortable, respectable, and attractive. Variations of this style of dress can work in many other areas of the world, especially Central and South America.
Lili, Altadena, California

Ghanaian women will be dressed in both traditional and western clothes but no matter what they are wearing there are certain guidelines to what is appropriate. The "secret spot" that should never be shown is the midriff. Showing your belly and upper thigh is inappropriate. In fact a fellow traveler though in her 60s was reprimanded for letting her t-shirt ride up and showing skin by accident. Be sure your shirts are long enough that this doesn't happen. Tank tops are perfectly fine, and in the heat I suggest it.

Tight shirts are fine too. You will see many women openly breast feeding in public so cleavage is not a huge concern. I spent most of my time in a tank. You will see women in shorts but I suggest long Bermuda shorts at minimum. With the heat I was most comfortable in a long flowing skirt and light travel pants. The first thing that Ghanaians will look at is your shoes. Thong flip flops are looked at as shower shoes and should not be worn outside the house. Sandals are fine but the normal rubber soled flip flops are not well regarded.

Just wear some other sort of strappy sandal. Even Birkenstock shoes are better than thongs. If you go to a club there is a good chance that they will have a shoe requirement and that is something with a closed toe.

P.S. If you plan on having clothes cleaned while you are there it is best to pay a small fee and have them wash it. Their washing will get even the bright orange African clay out of your white shirts but they are hard on clothes, so don't take anything that won't hold up to a really hard washing.
Amanda, Los Angeles, USA

K countries

When I was in the rural parts of Kenya, interacting with the community there, I was told that they prefer modest dress, i.e. shorts or skirts that go past the knee and no open sleeved tops. I think this has something to do with religious reasons. In saying this though, they are easygoing people and will not criticise you or be too offended if you don't follow the code.
Susan, Christchurch, New Zealand

My advice to women touring Kenya, is to leave your mini-skirts, tight jeans, short shorts and the like at home. You may resent having to dress like, what may seem to you, a "middle-aged woman." But most young Kenyan women, especially outside the large cities, will be dressed in loose-fitting, mid-calf length skirts or dresses. If you dress the same way, you will fit in and appear to be "at home."
Evelyn Staus, St. Paul, USA

I travelled in Kenya on a safari trip. It was really hot and very dusty and in some parts pretty humid. Don't do what I did and wear white! White gets very dirty very quickly and never looks that white again. Stick to natural fabrics (cotton) and neutral colours to hide the grime. T-shirts and shorts are good. If you take extra t-shirts - particularly with good interesting designs on them, you may be able to barter for some carvings or small rugs.
Mandy, Australia

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