I am far from a nun, extremely comfortable with my body, and if you describe me as “shy” in front of anybody who even remotely knows me – they’d laugh in your face. That said, I would like to think I’m all about respect. Respecting other cultures and their degrees of modesty are highly important during the sort of travel I enjoy most. However, in Africa I officially declare myself confused by modesty regulations and locations of the private parts.
On the surface, Africa doesn’t have a very “reserved” attitude towards sex, and you see it everywhere. Having multiple partners, promiscuous sex, children from different man starting from your teenage years, all that is very acceptable, not to mention the often topless dress code observed in many villages.
When visiting Himbas in Namibia, I was as alien to them as they were to me, so it didn’t even cross my mind to cover my ankles – considered by them to be the most private parts. Only in hindsight, I wondered if they saw me as an immoral savage. However, in Zambia, the country of western-style brick houses and people dressed in clean clothes and shoes, I’ve let my “modesty” guard down and walked around in shorts until I got reprimanded for it. What I didn’t realize is that this culture has its own social norms in which, for example, thighs, rather than breasts, are considered “private parts” to be concealed at all times.
As a foreigner, I try to be reserved in my dress and behavior, but unknowingly I was concealing the wrong parts. I had no idea, but apparently I’ve been “hanging out” for quite some time now. Luckily, the local market offered a quick solution: chitenge, a colorful print fabric that women use for everything from skirts to baby carrying.