When she heard I might soon be headed for a conflict zone in Central Africa, MoJo digital media mistress Laura McClure stopped by my desk to offer some advice. She lived in West Africa for years when she was in the Peace Corps and has traveled widely on the continent, and thought I could use some tips on comporting myself. From her email of what not to do so no one “interprets [my] normal American actions as sexual invitations”:
- No clothes above the knee, no tight shirts. Long skirts and sleeved, collared shirts best.
- Don’t be out after the sun goes down.
- Women may hold your hand, men never should.
- Never hug or kiss a man there. Shaking hands ok, but you risk the “dirty handshake.” Remind me to show you this so you can avoid it. [This turns out to be the basic tickle-the-other-person’s-palm-with-one-finger move we Catholic school kids always used to pull on each other during the peace shake during Mass.]
- Never invite any man into a hotel room, or let him invite you into a hotel room. Never, basically, be alone in a room with a man in any context.
- Limit drinking to your hotel bar, or in the company of women. Most assaults on foreigners in that area involve alcohol.
It all sounds “totally draconian, I’m sure,” McClure said, “but the gender rules are very Victorian there.” Well, you have to do whatever it takes to help defend against the sexual threats and assault that so plague lady-reporters. Adopting culture-specific decorum is of course far from a guaranteed safe time, but you cross your fingers that working within those boundaries will help. Some of the suggestions have the added bonus of being better for your health, anyway.
- Don’t smoke, unless you’re in your hotel bar or alone in your hotel room. Otherwise they’ll think you’re a prostitute. Seriously.