Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fashion Translation

            What do you get when you slaughter three pigs, two sheep, and invite relatives from all over Lesotho and South Africa to spend a weekend sleeping on your couch? A wedding party Basotho-style, of course!

            Last night I went to my first African wedding, or rather it came to me, as it was celebrated at my host house. The nuptials had actually been exchanged months earlier in Johannesburg with the whole family in attendance, but the bridegroom hails from Maseru and was obligated to bring his bride home for a sort of show and tell occasion that was really just a front for what everyone really loves about family gatherings – good beer, good food, and good company.  Combine all of that with good dancing and good singing and you’ve got yourself the ultimate Basotho good time.

            I heard about the impending party on Tuesday, when my host sister-in-law yanked me into her house on my way home. My Sesotho isn’t quite up to snuff yet and not everyone here is delighted to constantly delighted to use their English, so we tend to communicate in a dialect that incorporates Sesotho and English but makes greatest use of wildly improvised sign language accompanied by intermittent yelling at me for not ever understanding anything, and dotted with my profuse apologies. Anyway, Tuesday afternoon I got called inside my host grandmother’s living room to find that my host brother-in-law had magically transformed from that vaguely employed guy who hangs around the house into a nationalistic seamstress, apparently capable of spitting out traditional dresses at a rate that rivals any Chinese manufacturer here.

            He gestured toward the pile of clothing he’d miraculously accrued in the 24 hours since I’d last seen him and then pointed at me, all without looking up from his machine. “You need a dress,” he said. From this I now believe I was supposed to infer everything that followed, but I here must admit my stunning inabilities when it comes to mind reading, and so I balked - first in broken Sesotho and then in English. I’ll spare you my pathetic language attempts.

            “Thank you very much, Ntate (Mr.), but I do not need a dress right now but I promise I will get one before I leave.” I should have known that this would be considered unacceptable, but at the time I really believed I was being logical. We trudged on.

He sighed impatiently before responding, “It’s King’s Birthday tomorrow. Go to town, get fabric, and I will make you a dress.” I cocked my head to the side the way my dog some times does when I attempt to engage him in human conversation

            “Oh, yes Ntate, I know of the King's Birthday, but I can not attend the celebration. Aussie (Ms.) Grace, my friend who works with me, is leaving for America that day and I am helping her to pack.” Unacceptable. Another impatient sigh, still devoid of eye contact but with the colorful addition of every other family member in the house having come to witness my stupidity. Because I have turned out to be merely another person and neither a super human nor a total oddity, sometimes when my host family watches me do things that are theoretically simple, I think for them it's like going to see an opera and instead finding a poorly trained mime on stage. They expected me to be interesting, but really it's just awkward. 

“We have a wedding Saturday. You need a dress.” My inability to comprehend simple facts so painfully obvious to everyone else was clearly annoying him.

            Finally, my twelve-year-old host something-that-I-still-can’t-figure-out took pity on me and stepped in to translate. “They are saying that our family from South Africa is coming and there will be a huge party. See all the pig’s heads?” From her tween-aged hip stance and attitude I gathered that I was really supposed to know this. A gander at the corner of the room revealed that indeed, there sat a pile of raw pig heads just waiting to be I-don’t-know-what. Sensing a trend?

“We are all getting dresses made and so you must have one. They want you to go into town and buy the fabric and they will take your measurements and you will pay them. Don’t you want a siseshwe?”

           A word here about siseshwe. It is the Sesotho (in English it’s Calico)  name for the fabric used to make traditional clothing in Lesotho, worn by city-dwellers for special occasions and on an everyday basis by people living in rural areas. Pre-missionary days, girls wore short grass skirts sans tops, women something similar, and men a variation of homemade leather clothing. But all that changed when the French showed up and decided it was unacceptable to do as people had done for centuries. And so they introduced calico, sewn in imitation of their pioneer clothing, and the style was adopted by the Basotho as standard national fashion and is still so today. (Another ingredient tossed into Lesotho’s style mix is the Basotho blanket – produced in England and imported for similar reasons as Siseshwe - worn by rural people in lieu of jackets. I have yet you meet a Basotho rural or metropolitan who does not own at least one.)

            Because of its national heritage, I have known for some time now that eventually my family would force me into something made out of Siseshwe, possibly for amusement, but largely because they love it so much. Tales from Peace Corps Volunteers past and medical interns had warned me of my fate, but I was really hoping to put it off as long as possible. I have seen women who really rock the look, puffy sleeves, full skirts and all, but even coming from Ohio, I just couldn’t get ecstatic about getting into one.

And so I had resolved to get creative.  Numerous designs for a great, hip sundress totally suitable for the streets of Boston but made from siseshwe fabric sat ready and waiting in my notebook and I was hoping, just praying, that they would be deemed enough of an attempt to satisfy my Basotho friends and relatives. But, as usual, I was wrong. So wrong. My brother-in-law would hear none of my designs or explanations. A sundress was out – it’s winter, why was I so silly? And the cut I had in mind? Psht, no way, not at all. The only compromise we could find was a mid-thigh tunic with a v-neck collar, and if I had to be difficult, I could pick the print. The embroidery was left entirely up to him, as my suggestions had fallen far short of worthy.

Bewildered and dazed from the lightening speed with which he delivered his admonishments of my taste, stated completely in Sesotho and still with no eye contact, I gave in to all of his fashion demands. “Okay, great, tunic it is. And what color should it be? And when should I have it here? And how much does it cost? Oh, yeah, I can’t wait…”

Unexpectedly, what in my head sounded like passive-aggressive agreement sparked total joy in every one of the relatives who’d gathered around my stylized dilemma. When I finally gave up and in, they started whooping with happiness, smiling and laughing as if I had just given everyone their own pony. My measurements were quickly sized and I was shoved out the door and off to catch a taxi to town.

Too confused to question any of this, I followed all orders and four days later there I was, wrapped in a surprisingly awesome siseshwe dress and being ululated at (the kind of trilling cry of emotion that women invoke to signal pretty much anything they like at family celebrations), hugged, and petted by nearly seventy-five people I had never met. I can’t even imagine what it was like to prepare for the wedding ceremony itself.

            More to come about the party, my many offers of marriage, and hilarious drunken circle dancing that rivals any bar mitzvah I’ve ever attended.  


  1. lauren that was awesome. i read this and i'm just thinking, damn, what a situation. keep writing, i love it.

  2. oh cultural relativism.
    you absolutely must wear your siseshwe at brandeis. (ps. if you buy more fabric, we can make you a boston-worthy sundress when you get back. adaptation of cultural norms?)