Staying fabulous in 50 degrees centigrade: a special guide

As I have (repeatedly) noted, I live in a small concrete hut in a dusty suburb of Juba, with no electricity and an outside toilet with a bucket/hose shower. I have no fridge, no air conditioning, no fan, and our washing water is trucked in from the Nile: bugs, weird slimy leaves and all. I work in a shell of a building with no electricity for the fans. Despite the rains starting to dribble every two days or so – have been sweating through four months of dry season, where temperatures have been happily coasting at 40 degrees C in the shade.

So, it’s extremely hard to stay my usual beautiful, graceful self here. Unfortunately, I am entirely used to being glazed in sweat, which picks up a serious amount of blowing dust. My sporadic and extremely unskilled approach to makeup in the UK has not translated well here: things like lipstick or mascara just slide unhappily off my face. My hair has to cope with Nile water, direct sun, constant sweat and serious amounts of dust. Basically, if I am not visibly streaked with sweat and dirt, then I’m feeling pretty glam.

However! I have also developed some key extreme-weather “beauty” tips. (Beauty is in quote marks because these probably constitute basic sanitation and self-care more than Cosmo-level regimens.) So here follows my basic list of key tips for the cash-strapped, time-poor, electricity-deficient, overly-warm expat:

1. Don’t dress differently

Okay, there are key things that won’t work here: leather jackets die in the heat without proper constant care, and why the hell would you wear socks? Do you want fungi?

However, the flip side is: don’t pack a wardrobe full of ‘safari’ stuff that you would never dream of wearing at home – or worse, beachwear. There is a tragic strain of this in Juba expat life. Miniskirts and sundresses are culturally inappropriate among the tobs and formalwear here: smartness means you are well-off and well-organised. You are not on holiday; put the damn strappy minidress away.

Similarly, if you’re not one of the rare people who seems to wear hiking gear the whole time in the UK, why switch to that out here? Frankly, I have worn skinny trousers all through the dry season, because they are my normal clothes (despite creating all sorts of exciting sweat dribbling horror) and I feel like myself in them. I am not a ‘natural linens’ type of person (although it’s great if you are). Shirts work well, particularly if you pick up on the regional sensible idea of under-vests (sweat, again). My line in ridiculously tight pencil dresses that fall below the knee and have relatively high necks works both for making me look fake-smart and well-covered, while also not making me feel like a cultural fraud (baggy linens OR wearing a tob, neither is very me).

2. Coconut oil and headscarves: and cut your fringe

My hair is officially dead. It’s now been three months since the last haircut, and it’s basically yellow straw. However, all is not lost! Coconut oil is 8SSP ($2) a bottle, and it’s better than any of the ‘conditioners’ on offer here. Whack it on dry hair, tie hair in an old handkerchief (see below), do washing up and read a Mills and Boon, wash it out with local cheapo shampoo, and bam! It looks almost like normal hair again.

Headscarves are also key. Dust blows everywhere here, particularly while the rains are moving in, making huge duststorms; also the sun is vicious, obviously. There are lots of excellent tutorials for tying headscarves online. I’m not yet confident enough for a turban, but SOON.

Finally, if you have a low-fi haircut, then do some maintenance. You can buy decent salon scissors in Nairobi; buy some, and give yourself a haphazard trim, preferably while drinking on a Friday evening. I swear by this, actually: a manky, grown-out fringe shortens into a blunt eyebrow-length one and makes you look a little less like a student bum.

3. Eyebrow pencil and lip stain

If you have to do makeup (read: Embassy drinks dos and occasional lectures), then there are only two things that will stay on if you have to also run around in the heat. Primark does those lip stain felt-tip pens for £1 each. Buy a handful, it’s basically like marker-penning your lips. Tinted lipbalm also works. And buy a relatively sensible eyebrow kit. If you can’t keep mascara on (do my eyelids sweat, or something?) then groomed eyebrows give the impression that you bother with your face.

4. Loofah mitt, apricot scrub, antiseptic soap, and quick-soak moisturizer

The first thing I bought (and the first thing I bought for Sarah) was a locally-produced loofah square, sewn onto old towel bits. They are vitally necessary; if you do a scratch-test of your skin here, I find, then your nails turn black, even if you technically look clean.

These work best when combined with the next two key ingredients: apricot body scrub and antiseptic soap. To be honest, the nasty-smelling soap is more to deal with any nicks and open mosquito bites when washing with Nile water; the apricot body scrub is also about 10SSP in the markets here and will basically leave your shower full of dead skin, to add to all the shucked-off skins of my shower spiders. When shopping for both of these things locally, though, beware of ‘whitening’ ingredients, regardless of what colour you are. Bleach is for the bathroom after scrubbing.

5. Sturdy jewellery

This is also obvious. Unless you carry silver polish with you (or are nifty with the old hot water/baking soda/tinfoil trick), or wear extremely nice gold jewellery, things go manky. Get round this by wearing bangles (any patina rubs off fast, I find), beads, or just not bothering. Things like bangles are generally less likely to tarnish, I’ve found, than necklaces, which tend to sit in your neck-sweats all day. Charming.

6. No wetwipes – handkerchiefs

You might think that wetwipes are a great idea. Covered in dust? Wipe and chuck! However, I used these all last summer, and have given up. Wetwipes are for lesser levels of grime: once you’ve done your hands and face, you end up both with a brown wetwipe, and tidemarks around your wrists and neck. Use another, and you end up with a clear elbow- and cleavage-line of grot. Basically you will end up giving yourself a wetwipe bath, and those aren’t lovely.

The better method is handkerchiefs. Also environmentally friendly! The key with these is that they actually don’t completely clean you up – you don’t want the just-bathed face and a mud-streaked neck situation. For the intense handkerchief clean, find some handy bottled/Nile water, splash yourself down, and towel off. Otherwise just wipe off dribbly sweat-dust trails as necessary. Hide the horrible used handkerchiefs in your pile of laundry for your unlucky cleaner, or use them to wrap your oily hair in (see above).

8. Get your nails done.

Anyone who’s noticed my academically rigorous nail art posts will have realized that I believe in this rule. If you don’t manage to put any slap on, and your straw hair is tied into a particularly grubby leopard print scarf, then at least your claws and paws will look smart. You’ll also look interesting, because you clearly know where to go to get jazzy local nail art. And looking interesting is basically an electricity-challenged person’s answer to looking glamorous here.

I would be very keen to hear any comments, or preferably, further tips!



Filed under Africa, Domestic bliss, South Sudan, Travel

9 responses to “Staying fabulous in 50 degrees centigrade: a special guide

  1. Well, I freaking love the wet skin sunblock neutrogena does. I live in the tropics but have similar challenges in hot climates (although maybe a touch cooler, although less humid!). It’s great for reapplying when you are sweaty

    Any tips on scarf tying… I have long wavy hair and wear a ponytail about 98% of the time 😦 I want to be more elegant

    • ooh amazing. That looks perfect. I have pretty much given up on sunscreen apart from my pool days – terrible idea, I know, but it just is a whole nother layer of sticky grease.

      I mostly go for the Rosie the Riveter approach – square scarf, hair up in a high bun, turn it into a triangle then tie all corners together at your forehead; but there are loads of tutorials online, and I’m definitely working up to more of a turban thing.

  2. Nicky, I loved this post! Same problems with jewellery – what’s wrong with my sweat here? Oh, maybe it is just the sheer quantity of it. And loofahs from the neighbor’s fence are the only thing that keep my skin alive these days. Give me a shout if you are in a swimming pool mood this weekend. G

    • I’m definitely going to try to find some aluminium foil and baking powder and try to de-black my silver jewellery. It must be the salt? Anyway yes, swimming tomorrow I think at the Regency! Come join!

  3. zoe cormack

    Go to a salon (if you have non-Afro hair Ethiopian salons are best) and have your hair washed for you. There is a level of clean that you just can’t achieve on your own with a bucket of luke warm water, so have someone else do it for you! They will also brush it and condition it for you.

    A great tip I got in Wau – if you don’t want to have your nails polished or you find it chips too much – have your nails painted with henna – it will stain them a reddy-brown colour and no chips!

  4. zoe cormack

    Also, I cannot recommend this sunscreen enough, apply once to your face in the morning and it absorbs fast significantly reducing the amount of dust and debris etc that other sunscreens attract. No burn, no shine, just fabulousness.

    • Two sunscreen recommendations – it’s my lucky day. I’ve decided that for pool days, sunscreen oil is best for me. Factor 30 L’Oreal stuff seems to stay on and not dribble off with the sweat, leaving wierd white lines on my swimming costume, like regular lotion.

  5. Pingback: The right to beauty / Il diritto alla bellezza | some wor(l)ds

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