I went to pick up the children at school today. The crowd was milling around outside the front gates of St Exupery. I thought maybe I should hide in the car, so I wouldn’t humiliate my kids.
Well, there were the Burkinabé moms, dressed to the nines in tailored outfits of bright colors. The skirts are ankle-length and the tops very form-fitting. They often have long sleeves, but these women don’t seem to sweat. In fact, they look supernaturally clean, as though they were just sanded down and freshly painted. They invariably wear very high heeled, viciously pointy shoes, impressive hair extensions and designer sunglasses. The fingernails tend toward red and talon-like. No simple pagne wrap-skirts for these ladies. That’s strictly the uniform of the lower classes.
There were the French moms: cropped, perfectly coiffed hair, pink manicured nails and painfully thin physiques. They carry tiny handbags the size of a guinea pig. How they manage, I have no earthly idea. I carry a huge purse full of bandaids, sunscreen, kleenex, pocket knife, glue....ok, maybe I'm a little over the top. But still. They never wear local-style clothes. The fashion tends towards very short shift dresses. I imagine that they look perfectly chic in Paris, but in Burkina something that short is called a “tunic” and you wear it with pants.
The French and Burkinabé look odd together-the French women barely dressed and wilting in the heat alongside the Burkinabé women covered neck to toe, but looking cool and crisp.
There were the Lebanese moms, too: tight jeans and even tighter shirts, lots of gold and lots of makeup. They have teeny-tiny cell phones that they use continuously, even while deep in conversation with people actually standing in front of them. Real multi-taskers.
There was also the battalion of nounous (nannies), all ready to pick up their young charges. The uniform of the nounou is a gingham-checked, loose-fitting tunic and pants, usually pastel-colored. The few wearing a pagne and t-shirt are probably the employees of new arrivals that haven’t had uniforms sewn yet. (NB: I have my workers choose their own fabric for work clothes. They always choose flowers, never gingham checks)
Then there was me. My pagne was wrinkled and my t-shirt covered with fuzzy scraps of paper from working at Papiers all morning. I started picking the biggest bits off, but as I bent my head, more paper fell out of my hair. Oh dear. And my fingers were tacky with glue and blue with dye from the paper, my sandals far more comfy than stylish. And don’t get me started on my hair. In the rainy season humidity it is sticking out in demented curls. As for makeup, does lip balm count?
Maybe I’m a clueless looser, but I just don’t get it. Even the nounous look better than I do. Do all these women spend hours each morning showering, fixing their hair and putting on makeup? How do they stay pristine? Don’t they work? Even when I do make a bit of an effort in the morning, by noon I am a wreck. (Note to self: look into getting laminated)
It just doesn’t seem worth the effort. But then I go to the school, and I feel kind of bad. Not that the kids make a fuss, bless their hearts. Their only request is that I quit getting super-short, G. I. Jane haircuts. Which I have done. But now I have a huge blonde afro and my husband calls me “Sheep”. Not good.
The only way I see to solve this problem is to leave work early, rush home, clean up, change and then drive over to the school. Seems like a painful waste of time. Oh well, I’m always telling my girls “You go to school to learn-it’s not a fashion show”.
(BTW: Do you remember that Will Smith song “Parents Just Don’t Understand”? It features a mother saying exactly that same thing, as she forces her son to wear polyester pants to school. The first time my kids heard it, just a few months ago, they howled with laughter. “That’s you, Mom! You always say that!”)
To be fair, I should admit that I never spend more than 10$ on an item of clothing and that could have something to do with why I don't have that chic je ne sais quoi.
As you may guess, I fit in just fine among the women I work with in the poor neighborhoods. I get lots of compliments on my outfits, even! It's just when I get among the upper classes that I feel conspicuous and that I'm ruining the social cred of my kids.