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What Not to Wear

June 17, 2013
Bluffing with some of my senior students right after they finished their math WAEC.

Bluffing with some of my senior students right after they finished their math WAEC.

My mother raised me not to judge a book by its cover.  When you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, however, you are forced to be conscious of your ‘cover.’  Liberia is a culture that values neat, clean, and modest appearances and too many volunteers fall into the romantic trap that for two years they can let it all hang out.  In America we see dress and appearance as a form of personal expression so we feel embarrassed to critique other people’s dress code.

The truth is, no one will say anything to you but your community will talk about how you dress.  It’s up to you if that gossip is positive or negative.  How you dress will determine how your students behave in class, which community leaders choose to work with you, and how much you get heckled on the street.  But if those things don’t matter, sure, go ahead and let it all hang out.

For those of you who want to maximize the impact of your two years in Liberia here are eight dos and don’ts.

  • DO model the dress of people you respect and the community respects.  You will see people dressed all kinds of crazy ways but to be effective you have to operate on a higher level.  Look to the leaders and the people above you like the principal, the CEO, the County Superintendent, etc.  Or at the minimum look at your students.  They are required to come in a clean pressed uniform everyday with neatly shined shoes.  If you don’t look at least as good as them you can’t expect them to respect you and behave in your class.
  • DON’T wear shower slippers (otherwise known as rubber flip-flops) anywhere but your house and your yard.  Flip-flop-style sandals are fine as long as they are made of leather or something quality.  You will see a lot of Liberians walking around in shower slippers so you will be tempted, but again look to the leaders.  You will never see them do that.  Quality sandals cost money and people can’t afford to spoil them walking around all day selling or working.  Whether you want to accept it or not, your community knows you can afford to do better and they expect you to.
  • DO wear African clothes to teach and attend meetings.  This sends the powerful message “I am here with you and I respect your culture.”  You might feel silly initially, but it will actually be less distracting to your students and your community.  It also shows people without a word that you live here, you know your way around, and you are the kind of person they want to work with.  There is one administrator at my school who never says anything at meetings, but always stands up at the end to commend me on my dress code (a lapa suit everyday) and say that I am an excellent example to the young women.
  • DON’T wear anything short.  This applies to men and women.  Yes, it is hot in Liberia, but you will sweat no matter what you wear so start accepting it.  Men should wear long trousers, especially to school.  Primary school children wear shorts and junior high and high school students wear long trousers.  This should say it all.  Women, you need to keep those knees covered.  A mid-length skirt is all right, but if you look to women in the community you will see all of them wearing long skirts.  If you are sewing clothes just ask your tailor for advice.  “Make it so it can go to school.”
  • DO keep your hair (and beard if applicable) under control.  Again, your students are expected to neatly braid or closely shave their hair.  Facial hair on men is rare and the few times I have seen it the people with me have accused the person of looking like “a damn bushman.”  Are you getting me?
  • DON’T wear things that are skintight or show your shape too much.  Really.  I beg you.  There is a trend lately that female volunteers wear running tights or leggings like trousers.  No one wants to tell you, but this is not ok.  I repeat: this is not ok!  You will see young Liberian women doing this but some of them are ‘working’ and at the minimum they are not respected.  If you want to be effective at your job (and I hope you do) you are above this.
  • (Women) DO wear skirts to teach.  Many schools require female teachers to wear skirts.  Just accept it.  Your students will be distracted if you wear trousers.  Remember, your classroom isn’t about you.  It’s about creating a place free from distractions where students can be successful.  You will encounter plenty of roadblocks here.  Don’t set up extra ones over something you have as much control over as your dress code.
  • (Men) DON’T wear jeans to teach.  You might see other teachers doing it, but again you need to operate on a higher level.  Whether you realize it or not, your school probably has a rule about this.

There are plenty of difficult things about living in Liberia, but there are some things you can control.  Project a responsible, respectable image and you won’t believe the opportunities that seem to fall in your lap.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. blondie permalink
    June 17, 2013 5:03 pm

    Very sound advice. Obtaining the respect and trust of those you are trying to reach must be earned. If you don’t look respectable, then those are points against an already uphill battle. I deal with that in a different way in my own line of work. I’ve got the home advantage of being in my own country that 99% of the time, my client is from this country, too. Most of them look to me as their guide and interpreter of the medical world they’re entering but I’m often at a disadvantage for my normally being 2-5 decades younger than my clients. It’s hard enough to speak to someone about not having enough $ or being depressed, much less when you see the person being your child or grandchild’s age! So I try to make sure I’m not dressed outlandishly and am always neat and clean in appearance without being -too- ‘fancy’. [don’t know many folks who want to say to someone wearing a bunch of glittery jewelry ‘I can’t afford food or hygenie products.’. No good professional, regardless of their setting, should want to set up barriers between themselves and their client. Kudos Bekka, great advice for those who will come after!

  2. Linda permalink
    June 17, 2013 6:28 pm

    I think this should be sent to PCV’s all over Africa. I have found this to be true in all of the African countries I have lived in and visited. Very well said.

  3. George Vance permalink
    June 18, 2013 2:49 pm

    How things have changed in 50 years!

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