The air was hot with excitement. Even the breeze carried the energy of what was taking place. While straightening my tribal print dress, a friend whisked me into one of the classroom Labs acting as a dressing room for the evening. Phallic plastic molds and IV practice stations greeted me as I looked around the room in awe of the bright colors and even brighter smiles decorating the beautiful faces of so many different nationalities. I wondered if I really belonged amidst such diversity. Makeup was being applied, wigs were being brushed, jewelry was jingling, choreography was being rehearsed, and pictures were being taken. The African Diaspora Association at Saba University School of Medicine was hosting its annual Multicultural Talent and Fashion Show, and I was recruited to model for the event because of a dress my grandmother and I made a few weeks before I moved to Saba. This dress, however, really had its beginnings in the wide open spaces of Africa.
Ten years before, at the ripe age of 17, I found myself in Zambia taking in the sights, sounds, and experiences of a land and culture so different from my own. Even the sky is wilder, trees stretching horizontally to soak up the sun and shade weary travelers. My grandparents traveled around the world hosting mission conferences for pastors and their wives to be trained and encouraged in their ministries, and had asked me to come along and provide music for some of the gatherings as well as volunteer at a young women’s shelter and orphanage in the village. During my time there, I fell in love with the bold patterns and fabrics of the tribes, so reflective of the communities wearing them. I had to procure some for myself. I had tasted the brother and sisterhood of singing together in different languages, and wanted never to forget the power of holding hands under a common cause, of finding unity in our heartbeats and thirsty souls.
I asked the local pastor’s wife where she would go to buy fabric, so the following day we went “shopping”. I picked three different fabrics, one containing the Zambian flag to wear as a chitenge, and the others a pattern of coconuts and a pattern of chartreuse floral abstraction. Unfortunately, we left the continent before I could have the latter made into dresses. Two bolts of fabric harboring tales of African Safaris, apple fritters by the Zambezi River, women’s stories of survival in the streets, and the magnificent thunder of Victoria Falls, languished in my closet for an entire decade. They never could find their structure in the US.
Fast forward to this most recent April when an Estate Sale in San Antonio, Texas turned up a vintage sewing pattern crying out for the chartreuse floral fabric. I could not wait to put the two together. Finally, a match had been made. We cut out the pieces and assembled the parts, sewing, and fitting, and tailoring. I now had a “house” dress with pockets, never imagining the new stories this dress would inhabit on Saba.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of nations represented at SUSOM. As someone who loves engaging in different cultures, I appreciate that I don’t even need to leave my island to have a conversation with an intelligent young woman from Cameroon, or hear the social justice dreams of a courageous young woman from Congo, or laugh with a friend who is worried she will disappoint her mother by wearing her Indian Sari the wrong way (so many pleats, ya’ll’). These are my friends. We break bread together, laugh together, pray together, sing together, dance together, struggle together, succeed together. We need each other’s differences, because they reflect the fulness of God in ways we never could by ourselves.
Now when I wear my African dress, I see the faces of many nations, smiling, holding my children, laughing at inside jokes, and showing up to the rigors of life here on Saba. I remember church gatherings, hugs and music practices, “walking” with my husband and daughter in an international fashion show, unexpected friendships, and I also remember my grandmother who helped me make the dress, and my other grandmother who was with me when I bought the fabric in Zambia. So many cultures and histories colliding in one bolt of fabric.
My dress is a taste of heaven on earth, and it makes me very glad.
What stories does your clothing tell?