Traveling to faraway countries often comes with a manual in terms of behavior and clothes. While in Burkina Faso I frequently noticed tourists that were scantily dressed. This being quite opposite to what I tend to do and what we recommend our clients, I decided to ask around a bit with the local people to find out whether I was mistaken.
‘Ah Monique, I can’t really say anything about it’, my guide replies when I ask him for his opinion. ‘They are tourists and we cannot ask of them to dress in a special way.’
Shorts may be worn by farmers, while they are working the land. You may see young children in shorts or even teenage girls in the cities, but adults are dressed in trousers or long skirts.
‘So, because they are tourists they can dress and behave any way they like?’
With a faint smile on his face he answers that he realizes that it is warm in Burkina Faso for tourists. Also they don’t know anything about the country and its culture, so they can’t expect strangers to know how to dress.
‘But how do the local people feel about it?’
‘Ah Monique, you know for you it’s different. You are not a tourist. You live in Africa. And even though this is not Mali and we have fewer Muslims you know we are not used to dressing scantily. And you too, you know that in the cities some girls dress very modern too…’
While he pauses a bit, I start to smile, knowing that Africans do not have the habit to clearly answer a question like that, I ask him again for his opinion.
With a face that expresses his uncomfortable feelings he tells me that women wearing shorts are thought of as whores.
‘In our culture* it’s not good to show your knees or shoulders. Really they should cover them. But no-one will tell them…’
And that’s how it is in Burkina Faso and many other countries. No-one will tell you that your behavior or way of dressing is inappropriate. They’ll try to accept it, since you’re an ignorant stranger and you’ll soon leave again.
However, you won’t win the hearts of the people nor their respect…
* In this case culture is not related to a specific religion, this guide being of animist heritage.
Recently school uniforms were re-introduced in Burkina Faso since some girls in the cities started to dress in ways that are considered inappropriate.