Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I don't look like a hippie... anymore.

After nearly a year in Ghana I am temporarily back in Canada, and as I walk through a shopping mall, I'm surprised by how much I seem to fit in. Yet when I converse with strangers, people are often intrigued, if not shocked, that I've been in "Africa" for so long.
When you see me, I might be wearing jeans and a top, with matching accessories, or on a good day I'm in a pencil skirt, heels, some makeup and highlighted hair. When most people think about "volunteering to Africa", they are inclined to pack baggy, beige pants, flowing floor length peasant skirts, tank tops, hiking shoes, and beaded bracelets. And that's exactly what I often see in Ghana. Sometimes I cringe to see other ex-pats dressed in oversized, wrinkly clothes in professional offices. But I mean come on, its terribly hot, sunny, and this work is so much deeper than vanity is concerned, right?

After wearing birkenstocks, pony-tails, and wrinkled tops for probably far too many months, I now look different in Ghana. As much as my job has changed over the past year, my appearance (and vocabulary) too have been altered.

As I work more in Accra, attend conferences, and meet with MoFA staff at the National office in attempts to share the field realities we observe and influence in a more systematic way, I realize that I ought to dress the way I'd dress walking into an office in Toronto, not like I'd dress for a yoga class. Though this is Ghana, this is West Africa, its not all mud huts and eating food with your hands.. Ghana is a multifaceted country filled with professional, intelligent people.

The Ghana you might imagine may include images of poor children, poor education systems, malaria, crowded buses, and villages with no electricity or running water.. and this is accurate. This is tragic. But just as Toronto has both homeless people and lavish mansions, Ghana has as many cell phones as mud huts, as many high heels as wellington boots.

When I went to the field to meet with farmer groups teaching them business skills, I wore flip flops or wellington boots-depending on the season.
Now, as I work more in offices and less in the field(for better or for worse), I wear skirts and high heels to demonstrate credibility, professionalism, and respect.

As I continue to transform internally throughout this incredible experience, there will likely be continued observable external improvements, refinements to the person that "Robin" is.. some more visible than others.

And that my friends, among many other reasons, is why I don't look like a hippie..