What is a pagna? It refers to a two meter length of cloth, usually cotton, with a bright print, or a pattern commemorating some occasion. There are pagna patterns for holidays like Christmas, the installation of a new priest, or the 8th of March which is International Women’s Day, a big event here, if not in the US. The US embassy designs a pagna pattern each year about friendship between the United States and Burkina Faso. When you buy material, you get it in pieces that are one, two, or three pagnas long.
Pagnas, of the one pagna variety, are very useful. This is the most usual type of skirt for women. Women wrap them around their waists and tie their money in the corner they tuck in, because there are no pockets. The top can be a t-shirt or it can be a matching blouse. I have bought a few three pagna pieces and have had quasi-African outfits made.
Here is a picture of me in one of them. I am wearing a blouse that was supposed to be made like an American women’s blouse, but turned out to be more like a loose fitting man’s shirt, right down to the way it buttons. I am wearing a “cheater” pagna skirt because it has ties on it. It is also decorated with bias tape, which is something tailors may do to make an outfit look fancier. I have not yet got the hang of just wrapping that piece of material around my waist and keeping it up. I still don’t see how women can wear them and ride a bicycle, but they do it!
Women also use pagnas for carrying babies on their backs. To do this you bend at the waist, sling the baby onto your back, and spread the pagna over the kid, just under the head for infants, or arm pits for bigger kids. You tie this very tightly above your breasts and tuck in the ends. Then you pull the bottom of the pagna up to support the baby’s bottom and, with the feet sticking out on either side of you, and tie those ends just under your breasts aand tuck in the ends. The effect is kind of like a halter top over whatever you are wearing, but there is a baby on your back. The cotton material dries very quickly, which comes in handy when the baby wets on you.
Pieces of pagna are used as diapers and sanitary napkins. All the babies have belts of beads or yarn around their waists, often with a religious medal or shells attached for decoration. When I first saw them I asked someone about them and was told “they are for security.” I thought this meant that they were some kind of animist charm or something, but actually they hold up a piece of pagna that serves as a diaper! Silly me.
Once kids are no longer the baby on the back, they may go around wearing just a t-shirt, or maybe nothing at all. They are trained to go into the field to squat when they have to relieve themselves, although they may join the animals and relieve themselves on the road. Once they are “toilet trained” the kids usually wear pants of some kind, but they may be ripped and torn in various places.
The women breast feed their babies for at least their first six months, and often longer. This, of course, is very good because it passes immunity to some diseases the baby and keeps them from getting the bad bugs that are in the water here. en take their babies just about everywhere with them, to the market, to the church, to visit, or even to meetings. They do “demand feeding,” that is, if the baby cries, feed it! To make it easy most women do not wear bras and the tops are very loose to make it easy to feed the baby. Even older women wear this kind of top that is looks like a maternity smock, and has a scooped neck line that tends to fall off one shoulder.
Men may wear western style pants and shirts, or pants and tops made of pagna material. Most clothes are tailor made, by the many tailors in every town. The tailors use the old fashioned treadle machines. You take them a picture of something you like, find a picture in their shop, or draw a sketch. They take your measurements and, magically, without a pattern, they produce something similar to what you had in mind. Not always what you asked for, but interesting. One thing I have had to insist on is pockets in my skirts and dresses. Pockets for women are not a concept here, and not a possibility in a pagna.
Most people have only a few of sets of clothing. They usually have one better outfit for church or celebrations. Some of these can be beautiful, with fancy embroidery on the blouse or shirt, sleeves and skirt. As I mentioned before, you do not go into people’s houses, as a rule. I have been in only two or three here and there is no closet. I have seen clothes piled on the floor or hanging over a clothes line in the room.
Ready made clothes
At every marché there is a person with what I call Salvation Army rejects, that is, American used clothes that have been bundled up and sent to Africa. They are usually quite cheap, so what the person charges is really how he makes a living, carrying these things around from place to place. I expect these folks have to pay something to get a bundle of clothes, too.
Kids may be dressed in anything from a satin and gauze party dress to rather raggedy clothes. A pretty dress will be worn everywhere, fetching water, working in the field, sweeping the courtyard or going to school, and it is worn until it is worn out. Often the zipper is the first thing to go, so it may be open in the back. It is interesting to see people wearing t-shirts with slogans in English, French, or German on them. I think people usually have no idea what the message is on the clothes they are wearing
Someone asked what I usually wear, and the answer is, my American clothes. I wear cotton pants and either blouses I brought from home or one of the ones I have made here from pagna material. For church and special occasions I may wear a skirt, but I am more comfortable biking in pants and that is the only way to get around. I ALWAYS have on a long sleeved blouse with 50SPF sun protection (in theory) to keep from getting burned and to protect me from skin cancer. I wear a hat when I am not wearing my bicycle helmet and I put on sun screen faithfully, too. So, that’s the story on clothes.