Feb 082017
Ohio KKK member with gun

When Trump unleashed his Muslim ban on Jan. 27, many liberal friends and I re-circulated a 2015 New America Foundation report showing that, since 9/11, alt-right extremists have killed more people on U.S. soil than have radical Muslims. Our point was that Trump is missing the point: A Muslim ban will not keep out the terrorists because the terrorists are already here. But then I worried, did I just post fake news? Could the 2016 Orlando nightclub attack have put the jihadists ahead of the right-wingers?

To get the actual facts, I downloaded the New America Foundation’s publicly available dataset. My analyses indeed revealed that the Orlando attack, which claimed 49 lives, raised the jihadists’ death toll to 94 victims, compared to the 50 victims whom right-wing extremists have murdered.

Yet a closer look at the data confirms that the biggest terrorist threat is still U.S.-born fanatics, not foreign-born zealots. The two most lethal terrorist groups are U.S.-born jihadists (69 victims) and U.S.-born right-wing extremists (50 victims), who have murdered a total of 116 people. Foreign-born jihadists are only the third most lethal group, with a total of 25 victims.

These numbers not only suggest that an immigration ban won’t fix America’s terrorism problem, but also raise a second question: Why do homegrown Americans break bad and join the jihad or the KKK?

To this question, my fellow cultural psychologists Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele Gelfand have intriguing answers. Their research shows that what drives Muslims to radicalize is believing their lives don’t matter, a belief that is fed by feeling they don’t really belong anywhere. Discrimination, racist rhetoric, and xenophobic policies only exacerbate these feelings of “cultural homelessness,” as Lyons-Padilla explains in this TEDx Stanford talk.

Enter radical Islamic groups, which target young men who are feeling alone and adrift, and then restore their sense of belonging and meaning.

A similar psychological process seems to drive European Americans to join White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups. The slow death of manufacturing, the contraction of American towns and rural areas, and the tanking of working- and middle-class incomes have left a broad swath of Americans feeling unmoored and insignificant. The widespread acceptance of redneck jokes, white trash impressions, and “basket of deplorables” comments only salts these wounds.

Like radical Islamic groups, White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups offer their members the sense that they are important and welcome. Same psychological phenomenon, Different culture war. And thus the KKK keeps pace with ISIS.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Memphis and still have deep ties there. One of my relatives recently posed a question to my diverse friends on Facebook: “[How can we] keep our families, friends, and people that we haven’t meet yet safe [from terrorists]? I’m not asking this to be funny or degrading. I didn’t graduate from college and live in a small town in Mississippi. I’m not trying to debate with scholars.”

I think the timbre of her question holds a large part of the answer. If the grand U.S. experiment in multicultural democracy is ever to work, we must make everyone feel included and respected, even if they have not shown us the same regard.

Photo CC Paul Walsh

Oct 282012

Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about kindergarten. My kindergarten, that is. I’m thinking about a practice we had during lunch time: We did not get to choose with whom to dine. Instead, after purchasing our lunch or fetching our lunch boxes (mine was a metal Holly Hobby number with matching thermos, the combo always reeking of American cheese and citrus, which, come to think of it, probably explains why my favorite color is orange), we had to take the next available seat in a long column of desks, two wide.

My kindergarten was at a predominantly African-American public school in Memphis, Tennessee. If you do the math, you will figure out that my single White mama sent my honky ass to kindergarten in 1979, during the era of a) wide ties and wider afros, b) White flight from chocolafying city centers to allegedly safe suburbs, and c) the launch of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Which is all a long way of saying that the majority of my 5-year-old lunch dates were Black kids who were not going to put up with any racist bullshit from me, however honestly I might have come by it.

Instead, my African-American classmates–most of them, like me, hailing from single-parent homes and qualifying for (though often not accepting) free lunches–bridged our cultural differences by trading lunchbox items. In the first two weeks of my academic career (which would ultimately consume a full 24 years of my life), I learned that half my cheese-and-mustard-on-whole-wheat sandwich could fetch half a bag of barbecue pork rinds–a steal, by my lights. Half my navel orange was worth three Now-N-Later candies, whose sweetness and tang stuck to my baby teeth far longer. And if I played my cards right, I could convince some naif with a Dukes of Hazzard lunch box that my thermos of orange juice (my mom was into Vitamin C) was well worth his shrink-wrapped jumbo dill pickle (pronounced “pruckle”).

(Save the transactional pruckle jokes for my 40th birthday party, please.)

I was a child who liked to eat, born to a mother whose response to stress was not to eat. The divorce had been stressful. Raising two spastic little kids all alone was stressful. My Vietnam War-scarred father’s failure to pay child support was stressful. The night school classes to become a CPA were stressful. By the end of kindergarten, my 5’8.5”mother had shrunk to about 110 lbs.

But with the help of my lunch mates, I was maintaining my appetite and my fighting weight. I was also developing, it turned out, an enduring interest in race, class, and culture.

Just as important, I was gaining an early understanding of the limits of personal preference. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have always lunched with Susan of the ribboned chestnut ringlets and pastrami sandwiches, or with Connie of the white-blonde bangs and culturally okay Doritos, or Jennifer of the Little House on the Prairie braids and egg-salad everything.

Instead, I discovered new comfort foods with Roderick and Terrell, Reginald and Zuhara, Terrence and Zonna. I also mastered a new list of light conversation topics: Who do you stay with? (that is, which relative are you living with right now?) Which kind of Baptist is best? (options included foot-washin’, dunkin’, and clappin’) and, precociously, What things can White and Black people do together? (hold hands on the playground? yes; swim in the same pool? maybe; get married? maybe not).

Does this make me a better person? Probably not. It probably does give me an edge as a cultural psychologist, because I grew up alongside a culture (namely, urban, Southern, working-class African-American culture of the late 1970s) that some of my colleagues work for years to understand.

But my public education definitely made me a sucky consumer, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. I seldom listen to my iPod in my house, and never in my car. (My lowly ride does not even have a tape player.) Instead, I leave it to chance that the radio will serve up the acoustic equivalence of barbecue pork rinds or watermelon Now-N-Laters. I don’t insist on ordering shrink-wrapped pickles from the Interwebs, but instead will demur to almost anyone’s fermented foods, be they kimchi or natto or kefir. And though I insist on iron-fisted control in some domains (cf. my kitchen sponge rotation schedule and my color-coded project plans), when it comes to other people’s artifacts, I let go of the reins and try to take it all in.

And if I had a kid, I’d like to think–I’d dream to hope–that I would not overly curate his or her or his/her world to my narrow notions of how the accoutrements of daily life should be seasoned or arranged. I hope that I would give random a chance, as my mother did, as did all the struggling families in our community. Because from that randomness–and, in particular, the randomness of a public education–came experimentation, and creativity, and open-mindedness. From that randomness came the ability to appeal to the good side of each other. Maybe now, a return to faith in that randomness would lead us to talk, and trade, and trust our way to a little more peace.


Mar 282012

Hazel and I once again contributed to Edge.org’s annual compendium of ideas. In response to the 2012 question, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” we riffed on Descartes to summarize the big idea behind social and cultural psychology.

“I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Remember this elegant and deep idea from René Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy? The fact that a person is contemplating whether she exists, Descartes argued, is proof that she, indeed, actually does exist. With this single statement, Descartes knit together two central ideas of Western philosophy: 1) thinking is powerful, and 2) individuals play a big role in creating their own I’s—that is, their psyches, minds, souls, or selves.

Most of us learn “the cogito” at some point during our formal education. Yet far fewer of us study an equally deep and elegant idea from social psychology: Other people’s thinking likewise powerfully shapes the I’s that we are. Indeed, in many situations, other people’s thinking has a bigger impact on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure while philosophizing alone.

In other words, much of the time, “You think, therefore I am.” For better and for worse.

An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people’s being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be “academic spurters” because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students’ IQs were no higher than those of the “normal” students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the “spurters’” had attained better grades and higher IQs than the “normals.” The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.

A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people’s I’s is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math.

As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes—even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test—students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people’s negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people’s thoughts deform the I’s of promising students.

As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that “You think, therefore I am” could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.

Jan 162011


Pundits now invoke culture to explain all manner of tragedies and triumphs, from why a disturbed young man opens fire on a politician, to why African-American children struggle in school, to why the United States can’t establish democracy in Iraq, to why Asian factories build better cars. A quick click through a single morning’s media, for example, yields the following catch: gun culture, Twitter culture, ethical culture, Arizona culture, always-on culture, winner-take-all culture, culture of violence, culture of fear, culture of sustainability, culture of corporate greed.

Yet no one explains what, exactly, culture is, how it works, or how to change it for the better.

A cognitive tool that fills this gap is the culture cycle, a tool that not only simply describes how culture works, but also clearly prescribes how to make lasting change. The culture cycle is the iterative, recursive process by which 1) people create the cultures to which they later adapt, and 2) cultures shape people so that they act in ways that perpetuate their cultures. In other words, cultures and people (and some other primates) make each other up. This process involves four nested planes: individual selves (their thoughts, feelings, and actions); the everyday practices and artifacts that reflect and shape those selves; the institutions (such as education, law, and media) that afford or discourage certain everyday practices and artifacts; and pervasive ideas about what is good, right, and human that both influence and are influenced by all these levels. (See figure below). The culture cycle rolls for all types of social distinctions, from the macro (nation, race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, social class, generation, etc.) to the micro (occupation, organization, neighborhood, hobby, genre preference, family, etc.)

One consequence of the culture cycle is that no action is caused by either individual psychological features or external influences. Both are always at work. Just as there is no such thing as a culture without agents, there are no agents without culture. Humans are culturally-shaped shapers. And so, for example, in the case of a school shooting it is overly simplistic to ask whether the perpetrator shot because of either a mental illness or because of his interactions with a hostile and bullying school climate, or with a particularly deadly cultural artifact (i.e., a gun), or with institutions that encourage that climate and allow access to that artifact, or with pervasive ideas and images that glorify resistance and violence. The better question, and the one that the culture cycle requires, is how do these four levels of forces interact? Indeed, researchers at the vanguard of public health contend that neither social stressors nor individual vulnerabilities are enough to produce most mental illnesses. Instead, the interplay of biology and culture, of genes and environments, of nature and nurture is responsible for most psychiatric disorders.

Social scientists succumb to another form of this oppositional thinking. For example, in the face of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of poor African-American residents “chose” not to evacuate the Gulf Coast, to quote most news accounts. More charitable social scientists had their explanations ready, and struggled to get their variables into the limelight. Of course they didn’t leave, said the psychologists, because poor people have an external locus of control, low intrinsic motivation, or low self-efficacy. Of course they didn’t leave, said the sociologists and political scientists, because their cumulative lack of access to adequate income, banking, education, transportation, healthcare, police protection, and basic civil rights makes staying put is their only option. Of course they didn’t leave, said the anthropologists, because their kin networks, religious faith, and historical ties held them there. Of course they didn’t leave, said the economists, because they didn’t have the material resources, knowledge, or financial incentives to get out.

The irony in the interdisciplinary bickering is that everyone is mostly right. But they are right in the same way that the blind men touching the elephant in the Indian proverb are right: the failure to integrate each field’s contributions makes everyone wrong and, worse, not very useful.

The culture cycle captures how these different levels of analyses relate to each other. Granted, our four-level process explanation is not as zippy as the single-variable accounts that currently dominate most public discourse. But it’s far simpler and accurate than the standard “it’s complicated” and “it depends” answers that more thoughtful experts often supply.

Moreover, built into the culture cycle are the instructions for how to reverse engineer it: a sustainable change at one level usually requires change at all four levels. There are no silver bullets. The ongoing U.S. Civil Rights Movement, for example, requires the opening of individual hearts and mind; and the mixing of people as equals in daily life, along with media representations thereof; and the reform of laws and policies; and fundamental revision of our nation’s idea of what a good human being is.

Just because people can change their cultures, however, does not mean that they can do so easily. A major obstacle is that most people don’t even realize that they have cultures. Instead, they think that they are standard-issue humans—they are normal; it’s all those other people who are deviating from the natural, obvious and right way to be.

Yet we are all part of multiple culture cycles. And we should be proud of that fact, for the culture cycle is our smart human trick. Because of it, we don’t have to wait for mutation or natural selection to allow us to range farther over the face of the earth, to extract nutrition from a new food source, or to cope with a change in climate. And as modern life becomes more complex, and social and environmental problems become more widespread and entrenched, people will need to understand and use the culture cycle more skillfully.

Apr 072009

MP, CA — “Eat strange things.” These were my friend Lera’s last words to me before I departed for Tanzania. I knew I would disappoint her, for not only is Lera the world’s most brilliant, eloquent, and charming expert on language and thought (get a load of Lera on yesterday’s “All Things Considered”), but she is also the bearer of the most inquisitive taste buds and lax disgust reflexes that I know.

And I? I am a vegetarian, 20 years gone. Although I count myself among the most adventurous of my ilk, I stop short of rolling up my sleeves with Lera and tearing into the oxtails, or the entrails, or the offal, or the tripe, or the smoked sea monster.

Despite my chaste herbivority, Lera embraces me as both sputnik and dinner guest. When breakfasting in, say, Aceh, Indonesia, and served fish heads in spicy rice, Lera gets two servings of fish heads and I get two servings of spicy rice. Because she has mad Bahasa Indonesia skills, she delights in ordering “noodles in crab sauce without the crab” for me. Back stateside, she tolerates my gustatory shortcomings with admirable aplomb: although she wants nothing more than to roast a whole hog, and is lactose intolerant, she always has a vegan entree and six gourmet cheeses for her benighted plant-eating guests.

Traveling through Tanzania, though, I tried to snap pictures of things that I would eat if I had Lera’s omnivorous proclivities. I found the first candidate in the Stone Town meat market: unidentified ruminant heads, gleefully butchered. (see above)

Fresh squid? She would take two–one for now, one for the road.

Salted lake fish, padlock-style? Check.

Of course we would share the bicycle of jackfruit, although Lera would pass up the chance to ride the demon machine.

I’d eat the durian just to show that it’s not the smell of rotting flesh that bugs me, but the fact of flesh itself.

I’m a little embarassed to admit that what I ate over there strongly resembles what I eat over here: a bolus of starch coupled with vegetables spiced just so. In Tanzania, this combo is called “ugali and sauce.” The East African innovation is that the ugali–stiff grits–doubles as the utensil: Using the non-toilet hand (i.e., your right hand), you pinch off a mouth-size bit, roll it into a ball, press a thumb in to make a scoop, rake up some sauce, and pop the savory profiterole into your mouth.

(To round out the meal, you buy cashews wherever possible and eat eggs for breakfast because Tanzanians haven’t quite yet quite learned that “vegetarian” does not mean “does not need protein.”)

I also drank loads of Tanzanian coffee, such as the brew that this man serves in the center of Stone Town.

Recently, Lera has developed her weirdest yen yet: She needs blog posts. Two a week, in fact–one from me, and one from that beguiling Irish wordsmith, Dervala. Otherwise, blogmonster LB gets hongry. And we can’t have that.

So from now on, Dervala and I will be posting to our blogs at least every Tuesday, whether we need to or not.

Mar 232009

Menlo Park, CA — I’m back stateside and awash in more than 1000 photographs, which I’m slowly uploading to Flickr for your imminent viewing pleasure. I’ll spare you my ecstasy of self-flagellation over not posting more, better, sooner here. Instead, I’ll share this photo, which keeps leaping out at me like a rabbit out of a stock pot.

I snapped this pic as I wandered about Lushoto, a leafy market town nestled in the Usambara Mountains. We’d arrived by bike earlier that day, and so I spent the afternoon moseying around by myself. The main road was full of children walking home–from school, if they were affluent enough to attend, from elsewhere, if not.

One copse of willowy schoolgirls in their uniforms–which included a sweater, even though the temperature was well above 90 degrees F–bravely tried out their English on me. I returned their kindness by playing photo-shoot for a half hour. The digital camera–with its instant replay capability–is a fantastic toy, especially for kids who seldom see pictures of themselves.

The girls tried out all manner of complicated configurations and cryptic gestures.

As we sat reviewing our handiwork on my camera’s display, one of the girls–Amina, the first to speak to me–sweetly adjusted my sunglasses on top of my head. As her fingers lingered, I figured out what she was after. And so I took down my ponytail and let all the girls touch my hair. (When I lived in Japan, several people walked right up and asked to touch my exotic dishwater locks.) Oohs and ahhs ensued. I think my manky helmet-hanks were thrilling only because the girls had sacrificed their own hair for the privilege of attending school.

After we parted ways, I wound up walking behind these two girls.

Their gentle camaraderie was not unusual; throughout Tanzania, grown men hold hands when they talk, as do women (although people of the opposite sex seldom touch in public.)

Overall, the children of Lushoto’s good behavior was likewise unremarkable. The entire four weeks that I was in Tanzania, I witnessed only three kids crying and two bickering. Among adults, I saw a grand total of two express anger, and never towards me.
Makes me wonder where all these holy terrors at my local grocery store came from. And their kids are even worse.
Feb 222009

MTAE, TZ– Tanzania is a young country, with some 44 percent of its people under age 15, according to our friends at the CIA. (By comparison, 20 percent of the US population is under 15.) I felt this demographic fact on my first day of hard riding through the Usambara Mountains. The hills and valleys rang out with the high-pitched cry of “Mzungu!” as children announced our passage through their towns.

The sisters in this picture were so enthralled by my arrival that they followed me all the way up a steep 30-minute climb. Although I enjoyed the accompaniment of their footfalls and giggles, I found it difficult to feel like a bad-ass cyclist when four schoolgirls–all barefoot, none out of breath–could so easily keep up with me.

When we reached the summit, though, only the eldest remained. She spoke her first English words to me: “Give me money.”

As I would later learn, this is a familiar refrain among Tanzanian children. Someone, somewhere has taught them the following: 1) All wazungu are crazy rich, and 2) If you say, “Give me money,” they will share their wealth with you.

I’ve asked several Tanzanian adults about this phenomenon, and they shake their heads and say that the children have bad manners. They also warn me against giving money–even if the children are desperately poor, and even if their desperate poverty has something to do with my people’s enslaving their people and stealing their resources for, oh, the past 300 years. At least.

But enough of my white guilt, at least here, for now. I wanted to give this kid a treat because here she was, all brave and strong and fast, alone on a mountaintop with some strange white chick. From my pannier I fished out a small gift I had for just this occasion–a millefiore necklace that my ex-mother-in-law, a glass artist, made. I have about 20 of these left over from my marriage, and was looking forward to unloading them on the unsuspecting populace. (Agribusinesses, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical multinationals perfected this strategy long before me.)

The girl looked at the necklace, looked at me, and then said, “Give me money.”

By this time, Jerome, David, and I had regrouped and the three other sisters had caught up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a breathtaking view of the valleys tumbling behind us.

“What are we doing here?” asked one of the girls in Kiswahili. (Jerome translated this.) “These wazungu aren’t going to give us any money. In fact, they’re probably going to cut off our ears.”

Jerome chuckled and reassured the girls that we weren’t the ear-cutting kind of wazungu.

I told him about the money/not gift communiques I was getting from the eldest girl. He then quietly asked her about the necklace. She didn’t say anything.

“What an ingrate,” I thought.

But then Jerome explained that she really liked the present.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Because she won’t show it to me and she’s hiding it from her sisters.”

Feb 222009

LUSHOTO, TZ–Back in the U.S., I paid a cobbler $25 to repair the sandals I’ve worn on every trip since 2002. After splashing through Hawaiian waterfalls, floating in the Dead Sea, wading off the coast of Aceh, and pounding the Inca Trail, the sandals were having a hard time keeping body and sole together. But the cobbler reassured me that with a few dabs of hallucinogenic glue, my traveling shoes would be good to go.

By the end of the first week of myTanzanian extravaganza, though, I’d completely blown out both Birkenstocks–my only alternative to bike cleats and hiking boots.

“Don’t worry,” Jerome reassured me. “Africans don’t create anything, but they can fix everything.”

Neither half of this adage turns out to be true, but the latter is certainly more accurate than the former.

Jerome sent me to the shoe fundi (repairman) in the Lushoto market–a dark labyrinth of dried fish, plump produce, athletic chickens, and fat mice. David and I were the only wazungu (whities) in town, it seemed, and so the”Jambos!” were flying left and right. The fundi whipped out his needle and thread and proceeded to hand-stitch my sandals back together. I know he charged me the mzungu price–1000 Tanzanian shillings, or about 75 cents–but I was willing to pay extra for his artistry. Three weeks later, my Birks are still intact.

As for the adage: Tanzania hosts plenty of brokens that go unfixed. I high-five the toilet gods on the rare occasions when the hasp on my stall actually locks. I have yet to stay in a hotel room that has all of the following in working order at the same time: fan, mosquito net, hot water, and light. My jacked derailer befuddled the bike fundis in Same.

But creative genius is also everywhere. Passengers twist the laws of physics to use every inch of space on every local bus. Women defy heat and entropy to turn their bodies and cheap cotton into chic on two legs. Old men fashion marimbas out of electronics packaging. Children turn requests for directions into business opportunities (more on that later).

People pull so much function and beauty out of so very little. Is that not art?

Feb 042009

LUSHOTO, TZ–When rolling through the hinterlands of Africa, shrink-wrapping one’s womanly form in Lycra just won’t do. As it is, a white person is cause for much discussion in these parts. “Mzungu,” people announce when I walk by, using a Kiswahili word that roughly means “whitey.” A mzungu on a bicycle elicits even more comment, as people see the bicycle as rather lowly transport for the purportedly wealthy mzungu. Women on bicycles are likewise as rare as rhinoceroses.

And so a white woman on a bicycle is an event not unlike the circus pulling into town. Children rush out of schools to greet me. Women drop their chickens. Men marvel, and then discuss among themselves.

Mind you that all of this goes down in a really friendly way, with people smiling and calling out, “Jambo!” (Hello!) and “Karibu!” (Welcome!). Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to attract any more attention, or any less wholesome attention, than I already am.

And so I’ve settled into my modest Muslim cycling kit–loose mountain-biking pants or cycling shorts worn under a black cotton skirt, coupled with long-sleeve cotton shirts that I picked up at FabIndia in New Delhi when I visited Lucy a few years ago.

My demure dress probably makes me a bit more approachable, as I am clearly (and for once) not some half-nekkid wench come to upset the social order. But the question remains: am I an inspiration to the ladies to take up their bikes and lay claim to the highways, or a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t marry well? My guide, Jerome, (pictured here) and fellow-traveler, David, reckon that the answer is the latter, and suggested that we complete the scene by hanging a sign around my neck that says, “Woman for sale.” I recommended that they add “Long legs! Strong teeth! Good SAT scores!” to the sign.

Meanwhile, the people I roll past seem to admire my exertions. “No way I can do,” said a woman my age carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. “You must be very strong,” several men have speculated. But the surest sign of respect is the term of address they use when I’m on my bike. On foot, I get called “dada”–that is, sister. But when I’m on two wheels, I become “mama.”

Feb 042009

ZANZIBAR–The streets of Stone Town are a feast of East African fashion. The more modest Muslim women float by in their bui-buis–long black robes beneath which the women seem not to sweat. (I’m told the elegant bui-buis often hide either short skirts and flimsy shirts or tracksuit pants and t-shirts.) And Christians and Muslims alike rock the kanga–brightly patterned, sari-like strips of cloth with Swahili sayings emblazoned at their feet. One size fits all, although I think my new Obama kanga is particularly slimming.

The best part of the kanga is the least accessible to me: the proverb. In a kanga exhibit at the local museum, I came across a kanga that sported this gem: “Mother, give me your blessings; living with people is really tough” (Mama nipe radhi kuishi na wata.) An equally wise kanga that my guide gifted me reads, “The world is not permanent, and you are just passing through”–a needed check on my Type A tendencies.

But not all of the kanga proverbs are so bongo (Kiswahili for “clever”). I couldn’t resist one that the saleswoman translated simply as, “Oh, wow!” I look forward to wearing it to spice up those otherwise lackluster Mondays.