Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Red Tank Top

I have been in Niger 27 days now, and outside Niamey for 11. I don’t know what changed yesterday, but I decided, against all traditions, to wear my red tank top. It might have been that the hot season has been creeping in. This means it is over 100 degrees every day, rather than just over 95. I think by 10 am yesterday morning it was probably 98. While the nights are still temperate, the degrees rise by the minute each morning. By 10 am today it was creeping to 100. By 2 pm, out in the field, you could have fried an egg on the tops of my toe nails.

It felt good to put on my sleeveless shirt and my brown skirt that reaches to about 4 inches above my ankle. My arms, arm pits could breathe for a while. I could reach over and trace the condensation forming on my upper chest, instead of reaching under cloth, beneath my clothing. The sun felt good on my tanned skin as we walked to the market in search of a few fresh vegetables. I wasn’t alone. Some small girls wore ripped dresses, just falling off their shoulders. I felt in solidarity with these little girls, baring our shoulders. I might be a little older, a little paler, but they too could feel what it is like to walk through the streets of Abalak and have the sounds of the motorcycles, of the cows, bounce off their bare skin. All these other women, closer my build and stature, my own age, would never feel this, all covered up in their fabrics. Some even cover their heads, others their faces. Cloistered, my favorite word, concept here; my favorite nightmare.

I know I’ve explained it already, but to cloister, means to cover fully. Sometimes women will wrap their shawl fully around their faces, with only slight visibility through a lightly woven scarf. At other times women will do this and take it a step further: by wrapping a mat, maybe it is a prayer mat, around their bodies as well. Being a free spirit who can feel imprisoned after a day in an office, her own apartment, cloistering feels like death to me. The shawls, often dark blue or black, leak over these women’s faces and when they peek out from beneath their shelters, their skin takes on the color of their scarves. They are blue-skinned, wide-eyed, religious. They seem frightened.

But that is they, this me, in my red tank top. I wear it through the marketplace and down the street. I wear it the way I would in America, until I don’t. An older man, in typical traditional dress – white turban, long blue robe – stops me. He doesn’t speak French, but starts saying something to me in Tamashek. I have no idea what this man is communicating, until I do. He starts doing what looks like an odd sort of modern dance routine, lightly running his fingers over his shoulders, over his chest, over his belly and then pointing back at me. I’ll never know if he was amused, confused or dishonored by the way I wore my red tank top, but he put me back in place. Who was I in this world of cloistering to be so free? Who was I to dress this way in a world of shrouded women? I suddenly felt belligerent, the way my hips and chest curved out, so obviously there, so obviously a woman, and for all to see!
I left the man there, in the market, still gesturing. I scrambled in my bag for the green scarf laden with peace signs that my mother got me for my trip to Africa, to cover up, to assimilate, to be part of the landscape here. I threw it hastily over my head, wrapped it around my shoulders, and let it fall awkwardly from one side to the other, never evenly balanced, never fitting right. Because this is me: trying to wear a scarf to cover myself. I can’t do it like Fati or Miriama, like any of the cloistered women I see. I don’t fit in that way. It falls, it loosens, it flies away in the wind.

I walked home with my tank top partially hidden, only the bottom part of my stomach still visible in red. I hope the man in the market is happy now. But maybe he isn’t. I could have it all wrong. He could have been complimenting me; perhaps he likes red. I’ll never know, but I do know this: my red tank top is not for these streets.

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