Gloria works for KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) cleaning the roads, starting every morning at 6am. This often means she arrives late at the bi-weekly meeting of a support group for women in Godown where we first met. She hopes to set up her own business, investing in a machine for grinding g-nuts and sesame, but it would cost 2 million Ush ($535), capital she doesn’t yet have. Meanwhile, she said she makes ends meet by “joining hands together” with her sons, all in their 20s. She earns 180,000 Ush ($50) each month, putting 80,000 Ush ($22) on food and 20,000 Ush ($5.50) on beauty products, including make-up and hair oil. “Even without money I have to be smart. I don’t need to be shabby”. The rest goes on rent and her sons ‘top up’. I asked what they do when there’s a health emergency to pay for, and she said, “we rarely fall sick” thanks to her prayers: “when you light a candle for Mother Mary you cannot fall sick”.
Almost 10% of her monthly salary is invested in being ‘smart’, a word often used here to compliment the visible effort someone has put into their appearance, “you’re smart today!”. Gloria is not alone in stressing the importance of ‘keeping up appearances’, despite financial constraint; as one older man explained, dressing well and looking good are “a way of gaining public trust”. Or as at the weekly parties for a women’s savings group in Godown, the ways the beneficiary and her two ‘honourable members’ dress up is an important part of the celebratory proceedings. They often design and tailor their matching outfits, taking photos of each other and themselves on smartphones. Even the bar will be ‘dressed’ according to the beneficiaries’ preference, with different colour fabrics and lights draped on the ceiling and walls.
It seems that another way to look smart, especially for older women, is to look young. According to my research assistant, who grew up in the area, many of our female interviewees lie when we ask their age, wanting to seem younger than they really are. Whilst being called ‘Jajja’ (grandmother) signifies respect, so do remarks on a deceptively youthful appearance. Ageing gains admiration, but particularly if you’re smart.