Expat Diaries: Kanga Wars

For this month’s “Expat Diaries” I just wanted to share a short and simple story I [think I] forgot to share here before. It happened on my trip to Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is predominately Muslim. And when I say predominately, I mean 99% of the population is Muslim. While most of the small beach towns of Zanzibar have a pretty relaxed attitude towards scantily clad tourists, the main city of Stone Town remains pretty conservative. There have even been violent attacks against non-Muslims, including an incident where acid was thrown on two British girls.

While touring the city, I wore a traditional East African garment called a “kanga” around my waist to hide my legs and the shorts I was wearing underneath. I was pregnant. It was hot. It was against all my beliefs about how women in society should be treated. But I sucked it up and managed to deal with it.

After touring the city, I took a cab to the ferry terminal to depart back to Dar. I guess I see terminals (airport, or otherwise) as free reign. Yes, you’re still technically in your respective city, but in a way you’ve already left. If you’re an at airport in Doha, for example, it’s not really a place you “cover up” like you might want to in other parts of the city. Dar is much more liberal and diverse and it’s pretty acceptable for women to walk around in shorts if they feel like doing so (for the most part).
Anyway, at that point, the sweat was pouring down my back. My legs were tired. I was ready to get in the air-conditioned ferry and sit down for an hour or so. The second I handed the attended my ticket and walked into the terminal to wait for my ferry I let the kanga loose and threw it over my shoulder. “Aaaaahhh” I said silently as though I just sipped a glass of cold water.
Well the kanga hadn’t been off my legs for thirty seconds before one of the employees at the terminal got out of his chair and rushed over to me. “Madam,” he said. “Why did you take off your kanga? With it you were BEAUTIFUL.” He exaggerated the word beautiful and looked up at the sky and dragged his hand across it as though he were petting the stars (which weren’t out yet). Then he continued. “Without it, you’re….” He didn’t finish his sentence. He just made a disgusted look on his face (like he had just swallowed spoiled milk) and waved no with both hands.
“Geez. Thanks dude,” I thought. 
And that’s it.
That’s the whole story.
But it’s something I’ll remember vividly for the rest of my life.
And I thought it deserved an entry in my “Expat Diaries.”

P.S.- I totally meant to publish this next Thursday, when the Expat Diaries link-up occurs with Postcards from Rachel and Lost in Travels. Oops!


  1. You’re absolutely right about respecting other people’s cultures. When I lived in Doha, although a lot of non-Muslim girls will totally flout local custom I made sure to be as respectable as possible. I guess this guy was kind of diplomatic in his approach to getting you to put the kanga back on!

    Also, for some reason I cannot reply to your comment on my last post. I got the email saying you made it, but it doesn’t show on the blog. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you. It’ll be a wonderful 6 months I’m sure!

  2. Sigh. I feel so bad for the women who live there. One of my dearest friends grew up in Iran and she has told me stories of how women are so oppressed, how she was openly molested on public streets, etc. So sad.

  3. That is so upsetting. Like if that was me I would have felt violated in some way. Maybe I’m over dramatic but I would just feel so like… I don’t even know. It’s really sad that women have to live that and be ashamed of their bodies basically.

  4. Um, what an a-hole! I don’t care if he was waving his hands in the sky or not! It’s kind like that day when you finally decide to go out sans makeup and the first person you run into says, “Are you feeling okay? You look tired.” Nope, that’s just my face without makeup. Deal with it. But thanks for making me feel like crap about it. Lol.

    Sometimes you just have to laugh and shrug it off. I think your legs are lovely and perfectly fine without a kanga! Kanga-schmanga!

    V @ Life+1
    New Post : How to Avoid Embarrassing Travel Moments

  5. My husband and I have lived on Zanzibar for almost 2 years now. We live and teach English about 10 minutes from Stone Town. I have experienced similar situations, but it is with head coverings. I always wear some sort of head covering. Depending on the heat and the activities of the day, determines whether it will be a full head covering or just a simple wide headband and my hair is always pulled back (usually in some kind of messy bun). I always hear how beautiful I look when I wear the full head covering and a few “eh’s” when I don’t. It’s always throws me a little, because I feel the complete opposite of myself when I am in a full covering.

    I enjoyed your blog and really enjoyed your segment on reverse culture shock. We are preparing to return back to the U.S. in 3 months, so this has been heavy on my mind.

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