It was Wednesday and Elliot’s teacher informed me after school that he was part of the Eid Al-Adha assembly, and would need one of the long white Muslim gowns for it. Could I source one by Friday? I thought I’d seen them being sold at a mosque just around the corner from us, so took it as an opportunity for a visit.
On the way, I stopped to talk to two mama maandazi friends (different to these mama maandazis!) We chat quite a bit, and I’ve asked advice from them before as they seem to know everyone, but when they found out what my errand was, I experienced an unprecedented level of warmth and interest. They are both Muslim, so they were joking about Elliot being one of them for a day.
The first thing I found out is that the gown is called a kanzu. They thought he would need a little hat as well. They were pretty confident I could get both outside the mosque around the corner with no need to enter the mosque itself, so I didn’t bother with my kitenge which I had brought in case I needed a veil or extra covering.
Outside the mosque I couldn’t see the cart selling things, so I went to the women’s entrance to see if I could find someone to talk to. At the gate was a friendly looking man who was very happy that I spoke Swahili and more than happy to advise me. He told me the cart would be back at 4pm and I should return then. I thanked him and made a faux pas – I offered my hand to shake. He offered his wrist in return.
On the way back home, I stopped to debrief with the mama maandazis again, and to ask them about what I should wear when I went back. They were surprised that I was showing such detailed interest in respecting the customs of a religion and culture not my own. They were in agreement that since it would be prayer time, I definitely needed to cover my head and hair with a kanga or kitenge, but less sure if my shin-length dress was sufficient. Best to be on the safe side, they thought, and wear ankle length, and cover up at least to my elbows.
I asked about men and women touching and they said it was fine for men and women to shake hands, just not to touch in any other way. However, when I probed a little more, I discovered that the woman must cover her hand with her kitenge when they shake hands, so they don’t actually touch.
I complied with the dress code on my way to the mosque, and several people along the way assured me unprompted, that I was properly attired for my errand. When I got to the mosque, the guy at the cart was minding it for the guy who actually owns it, and he inflated the prices outrageously, but in the end we got Elliot a little outfit as a reasonable price, and met quite a few of the men from the mosque in the process, including the friendly guy I’d seen earlier. I did not shake his hand this time!
Elliot was delighted with his kanzu and hat and insisted on wearing them for the walk home, much to the delight and amusement of our usual friends, and quite a few strangers!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.