About 10% of the cloths I brought to Ghana go unworn. There’s the long, patterned skirt that I thought would be perfect for a hot climate where women don’t show their legs, but whose synthetic fabric catches uncomfortably on sweaty skin. There is the cool-looking white blouse that turns see-throw when it gets wet in sudden rainstorms. There is the sharp, sexy pencil skirt that is physically impossible to ride on a motorcycle in.
Knowing what to bring, and when to wear it, can be a challenge in my work. You have to be prepared for everything from meetings with government officials to dusty trips to the field, in weather that ranges from swelteringly hot to cool and dumping buckets of water. In every case, you have to consider cultural norms that are not your own. For armies of interns about to pack their bags and head off to get their toes wet (and dirty, and sweaty, and mosquito bitten) in West Africa, here are my tips for dressing for development work:
DO focus on material for comfort. No matter what you are doing and where you are going, it will be hot. Look for very lightweight, natural materials (like linen or cotton) to stay comfortable. I favor light, knit shirts that fit neatly and have some embellishment that brings their formality up a notch.
DO focus on cut for appearance. Comfortable materials can be cut to look professional. Men should look for very light weight collared shirts and slacks. Light-weight khaki pants with a sharp cut can go from office meetings to the field.
DON’T bring stuff that can’t get wet. Between sweat and monsoons, it will.
DON’T bring stuff you love. Handwashing is rough on cloths. So is falling in sewers, being grabbed by random children, getting bitten by goats, and being lashed by wind and rain. If it will break your heart if it gets ruined, leave it at home.
DON’T bring white stuff. It will get dirty super fast. Khaki, brown, red, green, black or dark blue are much more field friendly.
DO bring jeans. They are an awful fit for the climate, but everyone wears them, and you probably will too.
DO wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
DON’T wear shorts while working. Shorts are rarely worn in Ghana, and never in the workplace. Very short shorts will always draw attention. Short sleeves are fine; nice sleeveless shirts are usually okay.
DO wear skirts, if you are a lady. Skirts are a great way to keep cool while looking nice; they are the loophole in the “no shorts” rule. Just keep them around knee level or below, and unless you are adept at riding side saddle, don’t wear tight skirts if you are planning to ride moto.
DON’T forget to bring fun clothes—outfits for working out, clubbing, dates, hanging around the house, or trips to the beach. And don’t forget a swimsuit!
DO wear nice sandals. If you are a man, look for nice local-made leather sandals that can be worn with your lightweight khaki trousers. Ladies can wear any nice looking sandal.
DON’T wear heels, except on carefully considered occasions, but DO bring a pair. The ground is very rough here, and you will walk, so find nice-looking shoes that are comfortable. Also, it is very hard to drive a motorcycle in heels. Some clubs require ladies to wear heels to get in, so come prepared for that.
DON’T wear “bathroom shoes”. Bathroom shoes are inexpensive flip-flops that Ghanaians wear to go to the bathroom. If you can’t tell the difference between bathroom shoes and potentially work-appropriate flip-flops, don’t wear flip-flops at all. IPA Ghana officially does not allow flip-flops in the Accra or Tamale offices.
DO get something made locally. The tailors in Ghana are talented and inexpensive.
DO ask a local friend or coworker if your clothing is appropriate. This is especially true if you are attending an unusual function, like a funeral, or if you are experimenting with local fashions.
DO consider the impact of your appearance. Ghanaians are often inappropriately forward with ex-pats in a way that they would not be with a fellow Ghanaian; this is especially true for women. Consider whether your appearance will encourage people to treat you as a professional; clothing that is too casual or sexy will encourage advances. It’s no fun to be shooing off suitors while walking into a partner meeting.
DO break at least one of these rules. Putting on that one dress you really love, or wearing shorts to the market, or (gasp!) wearing a pretty pair of flip flips to the office can be a fun, harmlessly subversive way to escape from the constant pressure of fitting in to another culture.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.