Aka: to bring pants or leave pants as a woman PCV
I really should not make a generalizations, but in my experience most South Africans care about appearance especially in the way that they dress. You could see a woman in a pencil skirt and dressy blouse for running errands. I cannot talk about the male experience, but the general consensus is South African PCVs should look neat in the workplace. Dress also depends on the location. Mpumalanga and Limpopo (most of that province is located above the Tropic of Capricorn) are hotter areas while Amajuba and the Berg experience cold winters. Also, if you are closer to a city, chances are the community will be more accepting towards modern tastes in fashion. Yet (as I found out this year) you never know what will happen during service. I am currently the only PCV in the district and happen to work closely with district government offices while always being watched especially with my appearance.
Most days I wear either a knee length skirt with a corresponding top or a dress. To maintain a professional appearance (read hide my underwear) I always wear biker shorts and camisoles every day. Sometimes I wear pants, but both Amajuba and the Drakensburg fluctuate between very hot to freezing comfort levels. It is easier for me to maintain temperature control in clothes I can layer. My summer dresses became winter gear by adding leggings and long-sleeved shirts.
It is worth noting that some traditional areas, pants are NOT acceptable for women to wear. We are about 45 minutes away from Duke City, and my current host sisters live in leggings and the 19 year old feels most comfortable in trousers. At site 1.0 I was in a traditional tribal authority and did not see boo of pants on women until the shopping town. Also if you ran into the induna or traditional spiritual leader (who happened to live at the bottom of my hillside) it was more respectful to be in a skirt. As an example of old habits dying hard, when my Amajuba family knocks on the door and I am in pant attire, I still throw on a skirt.
With my long legs and wide feet, it is hard to find affordable clothes that fit my body type in South Africa (stress on affordable). I have purchased a few skirts and a dress, but even on sale they were splurges under the volunteer in country allowance. Before I left for Staging, I raided the local Goodwill and came out with most of my tops and skirts. At first I felt embarrassed about the amount of clothes I brought, but a year in I am glad because my Amajuba house is surrounded by barbed wire that keeps poking holes in my clothes. Also, when laundry is delayed (see next post) I have enough clothes to help me subsist. The one thing I would have left behind were my dress pants, which I wore at staging but not since. Maybe I will attend the international AIDS conference and use them but just as an SA PCV I have not needed them.
Finally, accessorizing is probably the most fun aspect I have while dressing as a PCV. Beaded jewelry is one of my favorite aspects of amaZulu culture and brings a guaranteed pop of color to an outfit. Something that I did not realize was that wearing beadwork serves as a great icebreaker, especially when I am asking personal questions for the CNA or registering clients for ARV pick up at the local clinic. I have a Venda beaded necklace as well, and wore it while greeting a Venda chief who noticed. If beads are not your thing, many PCVs find local tailors who sew custom clothes with South Africa’s traditional fabrics. I just found dressmakers in Duke City and my local taxi rank who do incredible work. Regardless of your gender identity, using local business for gifts or everyday clothes.
In the end, take what makes you feel comfortable but be safe and bring at least 3 skirts. Whatever you take remember, quick dry fabrics are your friend.