A capsule rucksack

I’m an avid follower of mid life fashionistas and love nothing more than perusing their daily outfit choices on Instagram and their blog critiques of new season cat walks – or SS19 as we say in the trade. Naturally I never follow their advice, and wear the same old crumpled, elasticated slacks I have worn for years – but it is nice to know what I would be wearing if I decided to brush myself down and follow these helpful fashion hacks.

Lately these writers have started offering suggestions for capsule wardrobes to see us through a range of seaside weekends, cruises or caribbean escapes.  I’m marvelling to see how a v neck knitted tank can also double up as a vest, yoga top, beach bag or tankini (and even as a spare pair of knicks if you are a  wizard with a knot).  I also now realise that I should be nodding in the direction of quirkiness when I choose my holiday jewellery (shell shaped earring for the Caribbean apparently and large, gold hoops for a weekend in Salcombe).   I feel so exhausted at the thought of this wardrobe overhaul  that I find myself hovering over lastminute.com and drinking pina coladas each night after work.

In truth it is all just procrastination because I really should be thinking of my own capsule wardrobe for when I lead our school trip to Kenya in July.  I’m thinking capsule rucksack and a cabin bag stuffed to zip capacity with tent, mosquito net and some contraband cereal  bars.

In honesty I am a last minute, slap dash packer and I wouldn’t usually be stressing over my rucksack contents until June is out.  It will be my fourth trip to Kenya, which makes me sound like an intrepid globe trotter, but in truth it just means that I keep leaving my heart in the village of Bochoroke, Kissi, and there are no other teachers available this year.

I’m only thinking about my packing because I have persuaded a good friend and x-colleague to join the trip this summer.  She is much more organised than me and assumes that I will already have my packing sorted (bless her), so has asked to come over and have a look at what I’m taking.

By the time she comes round this Thursday I hope to have my kit laid out neatly on the spare bed. Well, I say neatly, but that is only because we once took the students to one of those camping shop demonstrations on how a rucksack should really be packed.  After a master class on efficient rucksack organisation, the trainer then timed the first person to find each item he called out  “Cagoule!, Head Torch!, Insect repellent!”.  It was like ‘It’s the Knock Out’ on steroids.  The students smashed it, and were all being collected from the shopping centre at the end of the evening while I was still rummaging around trying to remember the canvas pockets where I’d secreted my water proofs and car keys.

During my previous  visits to Kenya (I’m less Out of Africa and more ‘in’ these days) I have learnt that you do indeed need to know your way around your rucksack, for, as a teacher you are likely to be the person who is caught in the dark, in the rain, outside a tent that hasn’t yet been erected because you are responsible for getting everyone else sorted before yourself.  I’ve learnt that it is always best to have those cereal bars somewhere close to hand for these moments of isolation.

If I was a rucksack fashionista and if my friend does want to listen to me this Thursday, this is what I will advise her to take:

  • Lots of wet wipes.  I know they’re not eco-friendly, but we’re going to be surviving on half a bowl of washing water each day and she may be sharing a tent with me.
  • A long skirt.  Where we are going – Bochoroke –  the ladies don’t wear trousers and it would be audacious to show a knee cap.  You’ll grow to love that maxi length swishy skirt, but you’re likely to donate it at the end of the stay so don’t get too attached to it.
  • A Mend the Gap trip hoodie; this will become your best friend.  It may not be on trend for a 50+ something to be wearing a hoodie (apparently it’s an absolute fashion crime for a grey haired 50+ male to be seen wearing one #notmyrulebutyouhavebeenwarned).  Make sure your name is on the back of this hoodie because 40 students will have an identical one and when the temperature drops of an evening, you’ll want to find your own hoodie quickly.  Make sure you use a name you want to be known by, for every Kenyan you come into contact with will call you this name prefixed with Madam.  (I’m still flinching from the mistake of using my childhood nickname, ‘Tubby’ on my first trip hoodie).Realise that this hoodie will be navy at the start of the trip, but will have turned a sort of sludge grey by the end.  It will smell a bit niffy, and it will be decorated with the ugali, mandazi and chapatti  detritus which you won’t have noticed escaping from your supper bowl during our fireside al fresco suppers, because you still won’t have found your head torch in your rucksack.
  •  A navy Mend the Gap polo shirt to identify you in every school, orphanage and village centre we visit.  Make sure you get one in the right size (they size up large) for it is unacceptable to customise it by knotting,rolling or pleating to show your belly piercing.  (Ok, I don’t have a belly piercing – yet – and if I do get one you will never find it in my roll of muffin top, but it is important that I tell you exactly what I will  tell the students).This t shirt will smell rank by the end of the trip as there will be no time to wash and dry it between school visits and you will probably have run out of wet wipes.  Fortunately, we will be donating it to the Mend the Gap charity when we leave and it will wash up beautifully and be worn by the teaching staff in our twinned schools. Truth is, they will look even better in it than you did.

    You won’t want to wear navy for a while when you get home.

  • At least 14 pairs of the cheapest pants you can find in Primarni.  It will feel wrong to throw a pair away each day, but believe me, no teacher will survive the social media frenzy that will follow if photos of your drying smalls (‘larges’ in my case)  start trending. (Even that knotted, knitted v-tank is unlikely to come to your rescue here.  Get to Primark).
  • Home clothes. At the very bottom of your rucksack pack a white t-shirt, ‘proper’ pants and a pair of jeans.  This is your reward for making it back to Nairobi YMCA the night before we fly back and having a proper shower.  You will be able to fly home feeling clean and you will want to remind yourself what a white t-shirt looks like after 2 weeks of camping in red dust.Note that these clothes will only be in your rucksack if over the last 2 weeks you have managed to pitch your tent on a site without a nest of Kenyan Safari Ants.  If you get this wrong, the ants will have munched their way through your tent and clothes and you may need to travel back home in that Mend the Gap T-Shirt.  Sorry – but not as sorry as your fellow travellers will be – that t shirt should at least guarantee you a row to yourself on the plane.
  • Cereal bars. You are going to have a blast in Kenya and you will be privileged to be taught how to cook ugali, mendazi and chapattis, however, there will a night when you feel homesick and wish you had chocolate.  It is too hot for chocolate in Kenya.  Cereal bars are the next best thing.  Trust me.  Do not share these bars, they can be your secret.  The students will have smuggled in their own stash of tuck and it is quite acceptable to share their biscuits and sweets if they offer them to you.  All teachers know this.  Take what you can, give nothing back.

Now that your capsule wardrobe is complete, I can tell you that you also get a VERY generous luggage allowance when flying to Kenya.  Your ‘other’ bag will be crammed to the weight of 23 kg with all those red jumpers people have knitted as school uniform for the hundreds of Kenyan students you will be meeting.  Every baby hat, bra, blanket and old mobile phone that you can squeeze into that bag will really make a difference to the village we will be staying in.  Nothing will be wasted. For once, pack as much as you can take.

You will fly home much, much lighter but your heart will be full.

While in Kenya you will be blown away by the beauty and elegance of Kenyan clothing – every item pre-loved, eco-friendly and in stand-out bright colours.  You will wonder why you fretted over the number of shoes you should take on the trip (walking shoes, flip-flops and sandals, perhaps?) when you see children walking at least 2 miles to school each day in bare feet, or proudly showing off boots which are falling apart and likely fashioned for a foot of a completely different size.

You will learn that one colourful bandana can multi-task at a much higher level than a v-neck tank.  One piece of beautiful Kenyan cotton can work as a turban, sarong, apron, tea-leaf pannier, baby sling, or shopping bag.  This is how a capsule wardrobe should really work.

So, on your return to the UK you will not want to be reading fashion blogs.  You will not want to go shopping.  Everything will feel very excessive and you will feel totally humbled by your two weeks away.  You will probably want to stay at home for a while and start knitting some red jumpers for next year’s trip.

I’ll be hard at work getting some fashion advice for us on capsule knitted wardrobes for Kenya SS20.


*If you would like to read more about Mend the Gap, visit their web site at http://www.mendthegap.org.uk

** It’s not too late to add to the London Marathon justgiving page for Mend the Gap https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jeanne-fairs




One Comment Add yours

  1. Vivien says:

    Try putting your’outfits’ i.e. pants and socks in large freezer bags. It keeps out the dirt and makes them easier to find/ distinguish between clean and dirty. Have a great trip.


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