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What to Wear in Namibia

The interesting thing about Namibians is that they can spot visitors a mile off. It may have something to do with the camera bags. It may be the amount of skin that is exposed to the sun or the fact that the person has either got a very deep tan or is bright red and peeling. But most likely it is the clothes. Travellers dress differently.

The reason Namibians can tell who the people are who come from abroad is the khaki. The average visitor to Namibia will usually acquire a combination of khaki shorts or khaki trousers, a khaki shirt, a khaki jacket, a slightly darker bandolier and a wide-brimmed hat, often with a strip of animal skin and possibly with a feather.

The only Namibians who regularly wear khaki, are tour guides attempting to blend in with their guests, farmers and traditional Herero men marching ceremonially at commemorations of major events. Farmers seldom wear khaki in town, for fear of being mistaken for tourists. No luck there.

Namibians have a somewhat relaxed attitude to dress codes. A jacket and tie is generally unusual. In fact, long trousers and a shirt with buttons are often quite adequate for a formal occasion or workwear. An invitation to a ‘black tie’ event usually means searching the cupboard for the only tie you own, even if it is the lime green one that was given to you as a joke a few decades back.

One of the more interesting fashions is ‘traditional’. If seen on an invitation, this means that men are allowed to wear flowing African robes. Very few people will take the risk of dressing in truly traditional Namibian clothing, which in some cases involves very little other than a leather loin cloth and an intricate, braided hairstyle.

The people who are seen in traditional clothing fairly regularly are Himba women - a rig of leather harnesses and a highly aromatic, traditional, full-body make-up foundation of ochre and other ingredients mixed with whatever grease comes to hand, and Herero women who wear a large, multi-layered dress that would not have been out of place in Scandinavia during the second half of the Eighteenth century.

In both these cases, it is not polite to stare, but it is acceptable to ask if you may take photographs. You might be asked to pay for taking photographs of traditional people. Due to the highly aromatic nature of the Himba make-up, it is acceptable to get downwind.

So how should you dress?

The cardinal rule is to dress down rather than dress up to blend in. If you dress too smartly or in the very latest fashions, Namibians will know you are out of place. Bear in mind that the sun in Namibia has been known to cause skin cancer so try not to expose too much skin. Any skin that is exposed to long periods of sunlight should be covered in suntan lotion. Next, don’t wear colours that are too bright.

As far as personal grooming is concerned, a few days growth or five-o-clock shadow is allowable, but only if you are a man. Multiple piercings are unusual but not unheard of. Anything more than five will cause people to stop what they are doing to stare, and possibly follow you.

Hair can be worn in any length, but anything below the waistline will attract attention in either males or females. Mohicans are unusual.

Tattoos are generally not done in areas exposed by dress. The small of the back is usual, as is the back of the neck or the upper arm. The author refuses to speculate on the occurrence of tattoos in other areas. If you have full-body Maori or Celtic tattoos, bear in mind that there aren’t many Maoris or Celts in Namibia and expect your fair share of bulging eyeballs.

If you are a transvestite, consider traditional African robes as mentioned above. Please don’t let your fishnet stockings or high-heels show as this will either cause nervous laughter or offense. Namibia is a comfortably conservative country.

Following this advice, you should be able to deduce that a pair of sensible walking shoes, jeans and a t-shirt or shirt are pretty much normal and amazingly comfortable. For added impact and blending in, a local t-shirt with a slogan or an advert, particularly the local beer, combined with the five-o-clock shadow for men, will make you look as if you were born in Namibia.

Namibia is not one the world’s fashion capitals nor is it a place where people are comfortable with fashion statements. Think of it as informally conservative, a place where you can dress down in comfort.