I was close to concluding that Arusha was one of the cities where tradition is at peace with modernity, as the city was filled with hotels ranging from 1-5 stars and there is a hotel at every bend, tourists come and go but at the same time the women in dilas and lesus are selling fruits at the street. The area I was staying in was a five minutes’ walk to the down town where there was a market, a taxi park and so on and a ten minutes’ walk to the heart of the town.
After three days of my stay, I was conversant with the street I lived on that stretched right into the market. The market is your usual idea of an African market; stalls of fruits, second hand clothes on the street and shops. The first day I went there I was skeptical, with my own idea of what Owino market is like, I wanted to make sure I was dressed appropriately. I asked the hotel receptionists, a local, if my shorts where decent. She agreed with me that all was well.
Having gone for an artist festival, there were many artists from Arusha and I asked one of the male artists to accompany me to the market. Again, conscious of my new surroundings I asked if I was dressed appropriately, he assured me I was fine. The visit to the market was successful. People went on with their business, attending to us with a smile, however at our last stop which was a kitengi shop, I ran out of money. I assured the shop attendant I would return to pick that particular kitenge the next day.
Confident about my way to the market, I decided I didn’t need my male companion I would surely find my way to that shop, I encouraged my other friends who were also just visiting to come with me. As a matter of courtesy I asked the receptionist again if I was dressed appropriately, she then commented that yesterday’s outfit was much shorter than today and surely if I didn’t face any trouble yesterday why would I today. Assuming the tour guide role, I set out with my two friends, chatting about how civilized this community was. We had not encountered any boda boda guy saying “sayizi yange” or any rude stares but before we had concluded our conversation, it all started.
I was passing through the same street I had passed yesterday, only this time with a slightly longer outfit than yesterday and yes with female company instead of male. At first I didn’t make much of it as a woman jeered at me, then every woman I passed was spiting after seeing me, then they started to follow me. Before I could comprehend what exactly was happening, I started hearing whistles, cursing words and a group of women following me, signaling other women to leave their shops, then men joined in, now I had a mob following me. I was cut off from my friends and women stood out on the verandahs of their shops jeering and spitting at the side. Men started to whistle, there was a dangerous buzz in the market place. Chaos ensued as though I was a campaigning candidate from a party they didn’t like. For a moment I thought maybe my cloth was torn and my panties could be seen. I took a stealthy look at my dress, it was slightly above the knees, it was a free dress with a thick material so it couldn’t be flying up to reveal anything. At that moment I wondered what the big deal was, as the same women cursing and howling wore tight, boob revealing sphaghetti tops, while the only thing revealed of my body were legs and arms
A man bumped into me and I woke up from the wondering world, I was now scared, I was beginning to be cornered, people were getting too close now, and beginning to circle me. I knew anytime from now I would be undressed, not that I cared, I mean am the kind who wears fully protective under wear, but gosh I was in a foreign country, foreign language and I had forgotten my passport back in the hotel.
I knew that if I showed fear I was gone. So I walked on with my head held high, keeping a steady pace. So comfortable was my stride, the confidence sort of kept them away from striking. Eventually I spotted the shop I was heading to. The verandah being covered by the women, I made eye contact with the shop keeper hoping he would remember me and come to my rescue. He seemed to remember me but just turned away. I walked on until God!, I saw a shop that had not been covered by the mob. I walked right into it and the mob followed me now angrier that I was trying to run away. The shop had a long wide corridor before you get to the stand which I got to before the now vicious mob. The shop keeper looked like he didn’t know what was going on. He looked at me and looked at the mob that was advancing. They were saying some words to him and for a moment he looked like he would side with the mob. I then picked one of his kitenge and asked how much. He looked at me and I looked back with a stern eye saying are you going to sell to me or what? He then stepped out of his stand and dismissed the mob, who were reluctant to go but eventually left.
I sat in the shop for a while hoping my friends were safe, which they were since they were wearing jeans. Two women came in the shop pretending to buy things but I know they were part of the mob. One started to speak to me in Swahili. I told her I didn’t understand the language. She was shocked and immediately extended her sympathy claiming if people knew that I was a stranger they would not have treated me like that and next time I should move with a man and blahh blahh …… Honestly I was so mad I lashed out at her and told her next time women think of putting someone through such horror they should think of their own children. She told me how people here are expected to wear long things up to the feet, so when women see someone dressed like me they do that to teach them a lesson. I assured her one day her child will escape from home wear a short dress and at the end of the day she will be burying a corpse. She seemed to get the point as horror struck in her eyes and she left me alone, walked out and started having a conversation with a few women who were still lingering around.
Later my friends showed up, very terrified that maybe I had been beaten up, which the mob had intended to do. The shop keeper begged me not to tell the matters of my encounter to people back home. He said, ‘’We are not like that. The problem with you also is that you look too much like people from here” and he went on to tell me how they are kind to strangers. Mmmh!
Anyway I had already lost the morale to buy the kitenge I had originally come for, so I picked out another material from the shop just to thank the shopkeeper for giving me refuge. He offered to walk me to my hotel but I declined. I quietly walked through the streets. Everyone went back to their business as though nothing had happened but I could feel their silent stares pierce through my back. It seemed like word had gotten out by then that I was a stranger and now they were all back to their treating strangers nicely.
Rashida Namulondo is a poet, dancer and actress,She loves meeting new people.picking things off streets and turning them into beautiful pieces of jewellery. She often comes up with quotes and her favourite is “It’s not over until it’s actually over” Meaning as long as your not dead, you still have a fighting chance.