As he was going back to Europe in a week, my colleague asked me about presents for his children. I suggested he buy something typically African, and definitely not plastic. He agreed with me and asked if I had any ideas. For his young son, I recommended he buy a toy vehicle made from wire and strips of rubber. He thought this was a great idea, but what about his daughter. “Does she like dresses?” I asked. “Oh yeah, she loves dressing up,” he replied.
On the trek back from the market, we passed some clothes shops. “Now those are cracking frocks if you had twins,” I said, pointing out two gorgeous neon-pink dresses on display at the side of the road. The bodice was fitted and made from a cheap satiny material with a diagonal of purple flowers from top right to bottom left. The skirt part was frilly stiff gauze, like a ballerina’s tutu. I think it is called tulle.
“No, no, no!” he replied. “I like this one, it’s much more classy.” He examined the stitching on a smaller dress, much less ostentatious. It wasn’t frilly. The skirt part had pleated broad bands of dark blue, light blue and silvery-grey and the bodice was dark blue. I think it was fake organza. But, like John Snow, I know nothing.
Well, yes, it was more classy, but would she like it? “Why not take a photo of both and message her? Get her opinion. Better than buying something she will never wear, yes?” I asked. He dispatched photos of the dresses on his phone and then started worrying about the size. “It is probably too small for her,” he said.
By now the shop assistant had sniffed out a possible sale. “How old is she?” “Six, but she is the size of a five-year-old,” he replied. “How old does the girl mannequin look to you?” I asked. “Is she about your daughter’s size?” He wasn’t sure. “Do you have a photo of her on your phone?” He did, but it wasn’t much help. The shop assistant wanted to see. “Yes, that will fit her,” she said. We weren’t as sure.
“Do you know how tall she is?” I asked. “About one metre, one metre ten,” he replied. The shop assistant came out with a tape measure. “Can you measure the mannequin?” he asked. The assistant measured the length of the dress instead, shoulder to hem. “How much is that?” he asked. “Seventy inches,” she replied. “Seventy inches? That’s as tall as me,” I said. “It must be centimetres. But measure the girl.” The mannequin was about a metre high from her beige boots to her balding pate.
The phone vibrated. “She says she likes the pink one,” said my colleague. “But I hate it.”
I said that I detested My Little Pony but that’s what my girls wanted and that’s what they got at Christmas. You have to respect a child’s choice, even if it rankles.
A little boy came out of the shop and gawped at the mzungus debating the relative merits of two dresses. “How old is the boy?” my friend asked. “He looks about six. Let’s get him to try on the dress.”
“That would be torture. You can’t do that,” I replied.
“Well, we could just hold it up against his body,” he said.,
“Sorry, but that is almost as bad. How about you hold it up against your body instead?” I said.
He laughed and said that he would need to get precise measurements from his daughter’s mother so he could get a bespoke dress made. “Any colour you like, as long as it is pink,” I prompted, as we walked up the street.
Post script: He took the measurements to the seamstress who made a beautiful bespoke dress, not quite as lurid as the first dress, but more frilly and pink than the second dress. When he gave it to his daughter, she was so delighted that she refused to take it off for the rest of the day. Result.