Sometimes, Westerners traveling to Africa forget that you can actually buy things here. I know I did when I first left for Peace Corps—thinking I needed to come with a two year supply of everything. People just visiting forget that people actually live here, so you can get everything you need. Sure, some of it might be cheap Chinese knock offs—ok, most of it might be cheap Chinese knock offs—but it’s certainly here. Clothes and shoes are everywhere, from secondhand to brand new, and at just about every price point. There’s some flashy stuff, there’s fun throw-backs and jerseys from your college or local sports franchise, but the best thing really is the preponderance of tailors. In the States, we throw out instead of repair. Maybe maybe for some major things we’ll go in for the fix, but most people don’t bother in our consumer culture of planned obsolescence and disposability. But here in Tanzania, you fix things. Then you fix them again. Then you jury-rig them until they break a final time, then you sell the parts to someone who can do something with them.
Same goes for clothes, so tailors and seamstresses are everywhere. I’ve had numerous repairs made over the years, usually from snagging pants on the endless supply of sharp metal edges that cover every form of crowded public transportation. It’s pretty amazing to see some old babu on the street with an ancient foot pedal sewing machine take a pair of jeans, slit out the seams with a safety razor, repair a hole, then put ‘em back together good as new in the span of about 5 minutes—all for about 50 cents.
But best of all is getting custom clothes made. Picking out some kitenge and letting your favorite tailor run wild, making something (literally) whole cloth. Down in Njombe, we had Geoffrey, perhaps the most dapper man in Tanzania, ironing away in his little shop while wearing a three-piece suit. He could turn out the menswear with the best of ‘em, specializing in shuka long sleeves for the crew in the cold weather, but also putting together some gorgeous suits on occasion. He was good, but unfortunately the steady supply of wazungu clientele started to go to his head and prices started to rise… Luckily, I was already on my way out of Njombe as the giant influx of volunteers started, and I had what clothes I wanted.
Here in Dar es Salaam, I lived a year without really seeing a tailor, usually cycling the same bland polos and button ups throughout the week at the office. I got my fashion fix blogging about crazy-expensive high-fashion pieces and menswear on a jokearound tumblr I ran in the evenings. It was a fun outlet to look at things I like but couldn’t afford, but my going out wear was still a steady rotation of black tees. Coming back in 2016, however, I had a goal in mind: getting some good kitenge shirts made. I needed some new clothes anyway, and when looking at a bunch of bland polos selling for $19.99 at Macy’s, I realized I could get some dope, custom shirts made in TZ for about half that price. Done and done.
When I first got back, I headed to Kariakoo early on to scope some fabric. Big mistake. Too many people, too many choices, too much stimulation early in my trip back. After taking a weeklong trip up to Tanga, however, I came back with a couple bolts of cloth I liked and high hopes. I was still in need of a tailor, but walking the streets of Upanga one early evening, I noticed a nondescript building with clothes outside and a promising message painted on the front: “Tunashona nguo za aina zote” or “We make clothes of all kinds.” I filed it away, and after giving my cloth a preliminary wash—a lot of dye comes out of Tanzanian cloth—I made my way back last week, one of my favorite short-sleeve button-ups and my least favorite bolt of cloth in tow. I figured I’d use the shirt as an example, and if their work was sub-par, at least I only used some mediocre cloth to find out.
The place was crammed with cloth, sewing machines and dudes working. It was a great sign. I asked if they made mens’ clothes and they assured me that they did—pants and shirts, dude. A shirt would be 15,000 shillings, or about $7. Very cool. City prices, but still cool. I showed them the shirt I liked and the main guy started taking measurements while I sat and listened to the radio with the other two. It was a screed against popular Western artists like Rhianna, Snoop Dogg and Michael Jackson, featuring very liberal—aka wildly inaccurate—reading of their lyrics and twisted reasoning allowing that they were in fact Freemasons and members of the Church of Satan. I couldn’t help but laugh, which got the whole crew laughing, and I helped correctly interpret some of the lyrics. I assured everyone that they weren’t Satanists, just singers, but I could see they remained unconvinced. I was loving it regardless. I got measured up as well, and talked details with the head tailor: short sleeves or long, whether I cuffed them, would I tuck in the tails or wear them out, did I want a pocket, band collar or traditional, and on and on. I communicated my desires the best I could and figured he got it pretty well. It was a $2 bolt of cloth I was risking, so I figured I’d let him rock and see what came of it. I was told to come back in two days—quick work, and perfect, because that meant Friday, and Friday means going out. This time it’d be with a dope new shirt on.
When Friday finally came around, I made the mid-afternoon trek down to the tailor shop while the group chat buzzed with news of open bars and cool places to be. I hope the shirt would be ready because deadlines aren’t exactly firm out here in East Africa. When I got to the shop, I was stoked to see my shirt was done! Except—wait, we sent the kid out to get buttons. It’s done, just no buttons. Have a seat. No, really, he’s on his way. Try it on. Imagine the buttons. It’s a nice shirt, no? It was a nice shirt, they did a bang-up job. I posted up to wait, idly scanning Twitter and WhatsApp, but also talking to the guys in the shop as they chugged away on their sewing machines, making pillowcases and dresses and all manner of cloth goods. It wasn’t a bad scene for a lazy afternoon, and we made the usual small talk: who are you, where are you from, what do you do, what are all your thoughts on god, why aren’t you married—you know, light stuff. Eventually, the kid made it back with buttons and they went on quickest, the mzee in the back ironed and folded the shirt about eight times and I was out the door.
It’s a nice shirt. I got a lot of compliments that night. The button stance was a little low so rocking it open exposed the tank top undershirt and I got my Marlon Brando on. Or something to that effect. We hit the open bar and a trendy art gallery and a backyard concert and I looked popping the whole time. I can’t wait to rock it in the States. Tomorrow, I’m headed back to Tanga briefly and I’ll be looking for more good fabric. I mean, I’ve already dropped some more off at the shop today, and there’ll be a new shirt waiting next Friday, but I’ve got a feeling it won’t be the last.