Toddre’ Monier is an international human rights lawyer turned traveler and producer of ‘Off the Beaten Path‘, a web series of her project “Beauty is Universal” and which currently sees her traversing the East African fashion scene in search of the most unique looks and cultural experiences. In this interview Toddre’ shares with us how she used her love of fashion as a starting point for learning about other cultures and seeing the world. She also offers readers advice on traveling to Uganda and what to see and do while there.
What inspired you to travel and how did you end up choosing to stay in Uganda?
While I was still in high school, my mom gave me a newspaper clipping of high school children experiencing the world on a cruise ship and told me she wanted me to follow a similar path. That didn’t pan out, but I held on to that moment. Later, as a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, I saw posters throughout campus about studying abroad in Paris, Germany, London and Australia. I was an African Studies minor, so I was always on the lookout for a poster about studying abroad somewhere in Africa, but that poster never materialized. I made my way to the international studies office to find out if such a program existed, only to be told that there weren’t any study abroad programs in Africa.
But then the unexpected happened: the director created a program just for me. I soon found myself studying Chichewa, which is a Bantu language native to Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia. I was due to study abroad for a year in Malawi at the University of Malawi when I was informed that I wouldn’t be able to attend due to campus protests. That summer, as a consolation, I ended up volunteering with Operation Crossroads Africa. For three months I worked building fly-proof latrines, a women’s resource center and a women’s garden for refugees from Mozambique in the Chiredzi refugee camp in Zimbabwe. I was 18. That was the beginning of my international traveling experience.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when after I was laid off from my job in Santa Monica, CA, I decided to move to Zanzibar and relaunch my fashion-focused travel series, Off the Beaten Path. From Zanzibar, I travelled to Uganda on holiday where I met my cinematographer, Simone Atuha. He believed in my vision and agreed to work with me, so I decided to move to Kampala, Uganda so that we could produce more episodes. Nearly a year later I’m still here.
Why do you think it’s important for women to travel?
It’s important for everyone to expand their paradigms, and travel can help with that. Our universe is constantly expanding and so are we, and we as humans are meant to evolve and expand with it. When Black women in particular travel, we provide another context in which others can see us more fully. This is important to combat the narrative about Black American women that people see in music videos and reality TV; that narrative often sees us portrayed in a less than positive light. So when Black women travel, we not only expand our own paradigms but help others broaden their horizons as well.
How can a fellow fashion lover use their passion for fashion as a jump off point to travel and discover new cultures?
Discovering new textiles in a new country is always exciting. In the developing world, batiks, silks, and other locally produced textiles can be purchased cheaply, then customized into a quality garment you’ll love forever. Learning about the people who make these textiles and the history of how and why they are traditionally worn can open you up to a whole new world. I once explored all of Paris just by seeking out boutiques that I had read about in the now defunct Lucky magazine. I got willingly lost and I began to live for the new streets, arrondissements, colors, scents and cafes that I discovered along the way. I want people to experience Kampala in the same way I experienced Paris, which is why I’m launching a fashion, lifestyle and empowerment tour that is designed to expose people to the world of fashion, art and culture in Uganda. Fashion is a great complement to travel because it offers a unique way to learn about people, cultures and even yourself.
What kind of clothes should someone pack for their trip to Uganda?
As far as fashion advice goes, if you’re planning on coming to Uganda in the rainy season, bring a jacket and low top rubber wellies or shoes that you can clean easily. Ugandans are rather conservative when it comes to fashion, so keep in mind that showing lots of legs, back, shoulders, midriff and cleavage is a no-no. For context, Ugandans have had the same president for over 30 years so they crave change, and fashion is one way that they express their desire for progress. That said, Ugandans love to dress up — whether they’re from the village or the city, they are on top of the latest trends. Ugandan women are beautiful and fashionable and often wear fitted styles, so I encourage you to pack clothes that are bright and colorful so you won’t feel underdressed or uncomfortable in comparison. If you’re the type that likes to stand out with your fashion choices, then this is definitely the place to express your personal style.
Despite the fact that we’re close to the equator the climate is rather moderate with temperatures close to 85 degrees and humid during the day with cooler nights; so breathable, cotton fabrics may be a better choice than polyester. And don’t worry about bringing lots of sandals, the craft market has all the beaded sandals made in Kenya that you’ll ever want. And for the ladies, keep in mind that stick-on bras won’t work here because it’s too hot. And bring an empty suitcase to take back fabric and ensembles that you’ll definitely want to have custom made. If you plan on having clothes made, let that be your first stop because it will take a few days unless you request a rushed order. And if you’re brave enough to ride a Safe Boda (motorcycle taxi) bring pants and shorts that fall right above the knee.
What other tips can you offer to make someone’s stay in Kampala as wonderful as possible?
You must get a SIM card. That will make your life so much easier and will allow you to use transportation apps like Uber and Safe Boda. Haggling regular bodas and taxi for rates in the street is something to avoid. The Safe Boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers provide helmets, hairnets and follow the traffic rules, unlike the regular bodas. It’s my preferred way of traveling because Kampala traffic is terrible.
You can also order good, cheap, Ugandan food to your Airbnb or hotel through https://www.kya-kulya.com/ for $1.35. Every restaurant will deliver to your doorstep at a steeper price via the Jumia Uganda app.
You must go to Bold in Acacia Mall for apparel and accessories. Nunu, the owner has a stock that represents brands from throughout the African fashion scene. Also visit the Craft Markets across from the Hotel Triangle on Buganda Road. There are 2 right next to each other. There you can bargain for art, apparel and accessories made in Uganda and Kenya. Bring Ugandan shillings. Stop by Nzuri Afrik for ankara sneakers with matching jackets and accessories. And of course, stay for Kampala Fashion Week in October for a showcase of the very best in East African fashion design.
If you’re an art collector make sure to go to AfriArt Gallery for contemporary Ugandan art. They have 2 locations, one in Bukoto and one in the Industrial area. For the best local eats, visit Gaba Fish Market for the best whole fried fish experience of your life in a vibrant, outdoor atmosphere — if you have a weak stomach or are looking for more familiar flavors then eat at Cafesserie for American and European style foods. It’s consistent, good and reasonably priced. They have one at Acacia Mall and one in the Bugolobi neighborhood
When you’re ready to get out of the city, book a hot air balloon safari. Ndere Cultural Centre is also a must! There you can see traditional Ugandan dances from each region, live percussion and singing. Shows are Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.