Originally written on February 10, 2015
A couple weeks ago, our group had a discussion on nudity. I currently reside in an Ndebele community which has elaborate coming of age ceremonies. The first night of homestays, some of the group attended as one concerned trainee put it as a “Naked Girl” ceremony where breasts were exposed. I think it is fair to say that most Americans would be shocked at the sight of exposed breasts in public. Our training director explained that American’s definition of naked and South Africans definition are different. If the public area is covered in South Africa, then people are not considered naked. Breasts are not classified as private parts, but in my experience most South Africans opt to cover their chest in public. However women can show their chest during traditional ceremonies.
I was invited to a coming of age ceremony Mam’s in-laws threw last Friday, but had a prior engagement. Last Sunday morning, I was doing my laundry when my host mom said to bring my camera, last night’s honoree from the party was waiting for me in traditional costume. I finished my wash and walked across the street. I walked into the house and saw a topless woman putting on her costume. Slowly she stacked the beaded rings on her arms and attached beaded belts to her waist. I was waiting to see what they used to cover breasts, when the woman fastens a beaded collar around her neck and then says, “let’s go show the Americans Musa”.
Wait…what? Show Americans breasts…am I trying to get in trouble?
She slowly walked outside and her proud mother has found a good background for the photo-shoot. They ask me to start taking pictures and I oblige. My impromptu subject did not seem intimidated or upset. She looked serene with silent pride for her culture and surrounded by support. There were no cries of disgust or judging stars at her breasts as her family directed the pose. It was a pleasant interaction and despite my American definition of intimate, I never felt that I was intruding.
Then the family asks me to pose with her and I was thrown back out of my comfort zone. I slowly walked over her and tried to keep my hands at a respectful distance. The woman tells me “Don’t be shy Musa” and I placed my arm around her shoulders. At this moment an aunt positions a smiling baby girl in my arms. We take several photos and then we look at my images. The family encourages me (with the model’s consent) to share the moment with the Americans. After contemplating on how to handle the situation, I decide to use this moment to share American culture. I told them I would share the pictures, but because Americans are uncomfortable with breasts, I will edit the photo on my computer. The impromptu photo shoot was too beautiful not to share.
After the photo shoot I thought the least I could do was help the woman out of the costume. After four years of participating in a form of dance with elaborate costumes and quick dress changes, I can gently peel off costumes without hurting the performer. Yanking off the beaded rings off her legs was a snug fit and while we had several close calls to pulling too hard, she did not flinch. I am still impressed by how carefully she handled each part of her costume and gingerly placed them in the suitcase. After Peace Corps I should strive to handle of my group’s costumes with such dignity.
All the best,