On Tuesday I tried to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to drop off a document.
At the entrance, a handful of police and security guards stopped me, demanding to know where I was going and why.
“To the fifth floor,” I said. “Consular section. To drop off a letter.”
A particularly cocky officer leered at me self-righteously and pointed to my feet. “You can’t go inside in slippers. We only allow people in decent clothing.”
Now, before I continue, let me clarify a few things.
First, I was not wearing slippers, nor shorts and a tank top, nor beach attire of any sort. I was wearing a perfectly professional dress, which covered both my knees and shoulders (neither particularly mandatory in Freetown), and matching jewelry. I carried a briefcase.
I was also wearing flip-flops – a simple black pair – because I’d left my heels behind at the office in order to brave the uneven, often muddy, and always treacherous Freetown streets. I’ve learned the hard way that running errands in nice shoes is a danger to both the shoes and myself.
But calling my clothes not “decent” was a bit unfair.
Second, I am very sympathetic with the desire for professional attire in professional places of work. It is a particular pet peeve of mine that some visiting expatriates feel they can attend meetings in what amounts to safari attire. One of my most embarrassing days in Sierra Leone was when I met with both the Chief Justice of the Sierra Leone Supreme Court and the Inspector General of Police with two colleagues from Washington wearing jeans and T-shirts. (The CJ was in a suit, and the IG in dress uniform. I was in a skirt and blouse and heels.) I mean, would they have met with the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court or the head of the FBI without putting on a suit and tie?
I therefore would have no problem with a Ministry issuing a code of conduct for such visitors, explaining the expectations for attire befitting the office of the Sierra Leoneans involved. And for the record, if I had been meeting the Minister of Foreign Affairs (or anyone else in the Ministry, for that matter) I would have worn my “decent” shoes.
This is somewhat different, however, from barring my entry to the building itself on the basis of a harmless pair of flip flops – a point which I made to the Fashion Police and to a senior official who happened by and explained that the police were merely enforcing a new Ministry policy.
“This is a government ministry, is it not?” I asked the official.
“Yes,” he said.
“So are you trying to exclude poor people from accessing their own government offices?” I asked, totally hypothetically as I am far from poor by Freetown standards.
“No, of course not,” he said, now looking around as I began to raise my voice. In my defense, I was hungry and hot and cranky after a morning of annoying errands.
“But you are excluding people who don’t have fancy shoes?” I insisted.
“Yes,” he said.
“So poor people without nice shoes can’t come visit their own government?” I asked, now enjoying my metaphorical high horse.
“Everyone is welcome,” he said. “They just have to wear decent attire.”
In the end, they let me pass. As usual, my white skin overrules most rules – unfairly, of course, but then I really did need to deliver that document.