Kampala – Uganda –
It wasn’t immediately apparent during my first two days in Kampala that there’d be a substantial fashion story to cover. In fact, my initial wardrobe assessment after checking out red soil roads crowded with black-smog spewing trucks and plaintains transported on bicycles, was to go grunge. Pulled out my trusty Merrel hiking boots, REI khaki trekking trousers and next-to-be-tossed Forever21 T-shirt. By end of day after my ride home on an infamous boda-boda motorcycle taxi, my hair was a wind-blown tangled mess, shoes grimy from mud, and dust smudged all over my cheeks.
Until I realized, not only was I possibly the dirtiest commuter in Kampala, I was also the worse-dressed. It was a miracle watching office girls in bright colored blouses and sleek grey pencil skirts whizzing by riding side-saddle with ankles demurely crossed on one side of their bodas while I struggled to keep from falling off, amateurly straddled across my ride and holding on for dear life to my amused boda driver.
Soon I noticed that everyone looked like they were dressed for a Wall Street fashion shoot. Men in starched collar euro-fit shirts, charcoal suits and pressed pants, women in tight black sheath dresses and matching demi-jackets adorned by elegantly braided metal and stone jewelry while holding lipstick red patent leather handbags.
And most of all, the shiny shoes. No matter what the weather or how much walking was involved, everyone shows up to work with impeccably clean shoes. The girls of Kampala negotiating muddy and hilly streets in shiny red stilettos with maven finesse made me rue my decision to forgo packing heels into my suitcase.
Throughout the city, only major roads are paved. Most residents live in districts without street signs and boda drivers take directions based on local landmarks. Residential paths winding deep into neighborhoods are lined with small shops offering mani-pedis, hair-braiding salons and suit-fitting among street cafes, mobile money stands and lush forest foliage.
Laundry is a national obsession. Washing machines are rare, out and about rough brick shanties with tin rooftops, one can find wide buckets of water, laundry soap and all manners of signature pieces hung out to dry on the line. A household could be judged by what’s on display, and stained knickers would be an unacceptable blight and shame to the neighborhood.
In most cultures, shiny shoes and a tailored suit still represents the classic definition of what a professional should look like. But coming from California where the dirty-surfer-ripped-tee-flipflops-messy-hair look is considered as acceptable professional attire around many offices, I wanted to investigate further. So I began asking around my Kampala officemates. This is what locals had to say:
“Of course, it would be unthinkable to walk out of the house in a rumpled shirt. You always want to make sure that your clothes are properly ironed and not sloppy. Otherwise, people would look at you funny, like this person is a joke!”
“In school our teachers always emphasize that being clean and dressed properly is important for education. You can’t just earn good grades. If you came to school with your shirt not tucked in or dirty, you could get in trouble for that. It all goes together.”
“My mother always told us when we were young, how important it was that your shirt is neat, the collar is straight. Our pants must be pressed and we had to take good care of our shoes. It shows that you are serious about your work.”
In fact, on street corners around Kampala, you can see little booths stocked with the tools of trade for shoe shine. It’s not unusual to find wet sneakers turned inside in neat rows when strolling down Bogoma Road as shoe-cleaning services lay their customer footwear out to dry. In our office bathrooms, the building management hangs up neatly typed signs reading, “Please do not wash dishes or shoes in the sink, they will clog the pipes. Thank you.”
And thus began my obsession with a Kiwi Shoe Polish radio commercial, one I hear everyday at 6:30am on the car radio on the way to work. It roughly goes like this:
“Kiwi Shoe Polish nourishes and protects your shoes, keeping them looking newer, for longer.
In Uganda, we teach our children how to make the most out of limited resources.
Nothing is ever wasted. By taking good care of their things and making them last, children learn to be responsible.
Because we know that a bright future tomorrow, starts with making the right decisions today.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Makerere University, where the nation’s top students study. On Saturdays, the university’s laundry is spread like brightly colored flags across lawns and bushes, washed, dried and ironed by workers of student-started laundering services. Higher education is not only a privilege, it is the hard-earned sacrifice of students and their elders alike.
Whereas the majority population derives its living primarily from subsistence farming, children begin earning their way to pay for school fees through odd jobs and starting up small entrepreneurial businesses. My coworkers had put themselves through high school and university by gathering their friends together to do local deliveries, helping the elderly or busy with yard and housework.
African entrepreneurship has been highly touted by the likes of Time and Forbes. In Uganda, it is becoming a more common experience among the younger generation. Similar startup experiences growing up are further encouraged by professors, classes and programs promoting youth entrepreneurship.
To hear my colleagues talk, you can understand the calculation and planning undertaken in their education and career decisions to compete in a highly crowded job market. Their parents faithfully taught the values of thrift, hard work, and the importance of presentation to give every possible advantage to their children amidst meager means. Their desire to grow, to do more, learn more, be more, is shaped by the challenges of growing up poor. Yet there is no shame, only a shared pride and laughter over challenges overcome through perseverance and ingenuity and a determination to succeed. More than one person mentioned how mom and dad was their hero.
Within chic colors popping out vividly against dark professional hues and tailoring, one senses that hope, aspiration and gumption pervades in Kampala. People are motivated and proud of the adversities overcome, see themselves as part of Africa’s future, and are unafraid to dream big dreams.
Ready for the world, and dressed for success. The difference is but in the shine of a shoe.
To watch a Kenyan version of the Kiwi commercial, see below: