*in the interests of populating this blog, I am cross-posting this article for Mambo. Original post available here: http://www.mambomagazine.com/blog/20-jun/beyond-the-bui-bui*
Conjure up an image of Zanzibar in your mind. Maybe you picture white sand beaches, chaotic markets, lush shamba, or the smell of strong coffee brewing in Jaws Corner.
Whatever you picture, one constant throughout is the well-dressed Islamic woman. Mysterious, much-maligned and oft-misunderstood – the headscarf and bui-bui-clad woman is ubiquitous in Zanzibar.
The bui-bui, also known as an abaya, is a long black garment worn in public by Muslim women. Particularly popular since the 80s, it preserves modesty and (I’m told) is great for fat days. Seeing groups of women walk down the street in headscarfs or veils and bui-buis is a common sight… wait, did I just see a flash of jegging?
As a new arrival in Zanzibar, I had to acknowledge that my own stereotypes were superficial and naïve. I quickly noticed that, in intimate company, the bui-bui were shed to reveal stylish, fashionable clothing. But, I wondered, where do they get these clothes?
My own search for clothes in Stone Town had been largely futile. I had packed absolutely inappropriately for my new life here. Coming from the crushing cold of January in northern Canada, my hiking gear was too hot and my beach wear too revealing, and I somehow forgot to pack trousers.
I started building my new wardrobe by searching the tourist stores on Gizenga and Hurumzi streets. Shop after shop, I found the same workplace-inappropriate sundresses, TinTin t-shirts, and enough diaper pants to clothe MC Hammer for life.
I was almost resigned to making a “mzungu” t-shirt and hammer pants my new signature look when a co-worker suggested I explore behind the daladala stop. It was there I discovered the veritable sartorial wonderland known as the Darajani market. The narrow streets full of clothing stands feel like a flea market on LSD.
Park your expectations of yards of black and matching diras at the door - beyond the stands are a series of shops packed to bursting with every kind of clothing imaginable. A dedicated shopper can find everything from a fully rhinestoned Christmas gown to gold lame ruched capris worthy of Lady Gaga herself.
After your eyes adjust to the amount of bling present, some slightly more sober (read: wearable) pieces can be found. Black leggings, t-shirt dresses, even the coveted cardigan can be found back here – nary a diaper pant or ironic t-shirt in sight. Helpful shopkeepers (with excellent English) are happy to direct you to another shop if theirs doesn’t have what you’re looking for – a welcome change from the more cutthroat tourist spots.
Much fun was had poring over the racks and stacks of clothing. My finds of the day were a blue shirtdress, perfect for work or play, and the crucial black leggings that allow me to cycle freely in my skirts. Spraypainted polyester Louis Vuitton jeggings, a denim floor-length gown and a series of bedazzled and snakeskin turtlenecks didn’t make the cut – this time.
Since then, I’ve discovered other shops in Stone Town proper with nice, wearable clothes (try between Hurumzi and the market). Now that I know where to shop, I find myself talking to my local shogas about their clothes choices more, and it’s helping me to understand them better.
When I first arrived I found it difficult to get to know the women here, to move beyond the standard greetings into an actual friendship. Part of that was my own shyness and preconceptions gleaned from global media. Now that I am getting beyond the bui-bui, as it were, I’m discovering that, just like a chaotic market with hidden treasures untold, there’s always more than meets the eye.