An mzungu tends to stand out in Tanzania. He dresses practically and comfortably, and that puts most of his clothing at odds with local dress. Trekking gear or travel wear? So dull and baggy. Big, roomy shirts for staying cool? How unpolished. Surf sandals, sneakers, backpacks? All unusual or shabby, and sun hats and sunglasses complete the package. Maybe strangest of all are shorts — that’s what kids wear!
Of course, an mzungu can be forgiven for not looking exactly like a Tanzanian, seeing as he’s not one. I’m from Australia, land of shorts and flip-flops (thongs), where we like to dress casually. But if you want to look sharp at a local level in Tanzania, here are five tips I’ve picked up in the last three years. The main thing is: the neater you look, the better.
1. Button up.
We’re talking smart casual, or business wear, worn with class, sleeves down, possibly cufflinks (although ties are not a must). Chinese designers supply the markets with the latest brand lookalikes, so you’ll be spoilt for choice.
2. Dress up your feet.
A pair of shiny, pointy dress shoes is a winner. Closed-toed shoes are not a must, and fancy sandals can work well, but they should be new, leather-looking and ideally with some kind of ornamentation.
3. Make liberal use of your iron and your shoe polish.
Even at a camp-conference, people come looking crisp.
4. Get a tailor-made outfit for a personal touch or special occasion.
Guys don’t often wear kitenge outfits, but there’s a particular pride and classiness in a bold, form-fitting shirt. If there’s an celebration, team up with some friends so you can match each other and all look the part.
5. Polo-style shirts are a winner.
Just make sure, as with every other item of clothing, that it’s figure-hugging (but not skintight) and new-looking. Watch out for thick, non-breathable fabrics that might drag you down if you’re adapted for life closer to the poles.
PS: You’ll never look your best in a teeshirt.
T-shirts are synonymous with mitumba, the donated garments offloaded from the West. In the West, a t-shirt is a canvas for individual self-expression, but those messages mean little in Tanzania except that you’re wearing someone else’s stuff.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.