The Vest That Changed My Life

By: Karen Chan

TRIGGER WARNING This article contains information about sexual assault and/or violence, which may be triggering to survivors (the author prefers the word ‘warriors’).

In 2017, a vest made out of African kitenge fabric changed my life. It was carefully sewn by three hearing-impaired tailors, Tatu Rafiki, which translates to ‘three friends’ in Swahili. Red plaid shukka edges and a lovely green floral cotton decorated it. This vest became a way to regain my power after a man, who was my friend, took it away. 

Karen with her work

One starry night in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, a manager of a club came to my hotel to check on me. Under the guise of apologizing for how his employee had behaved, he took me out for chips mayi, a Tanzanian omelette mixed with fries. The last thing I remember was the wind in my long black hair on the back of a boda boda, a motorbike. I had told my roommate to come check on me if I didn’t return in ten minutes. I didn’t come back until the next morning. Teary eyed and petrified. 

I woke up in a different hotel with my silk skirt on the floor and a sense of panic. My skirt was diagonal to a used condom. Crime scene, said my nurse-self. Tainted skirt. The same skirt that was made in Hong Kong, my mother’s hometown. Every time I wore it, I would now think of him. “King” he called himself. 

I needed to re-frame that morning with a simple act of self-care: I needed to buy a new outfit to restore my dignity and to feel beautiful in. At this point, I had worked in challenging environments in Canada and Africa for several years. I am calm when others are in crisis, but nothing prepared me for this day. 

What happened next was a string of random acts of kindness. People, especially men, started to show up to help me: a woman shaking while eating chips mayi. A mountain guide took me to the doctor. Another, took me to the police. And in the hotel's dusty shop, I met the friendliest and smiliest tailor in Moshi Town. Next to him was the vest that would change my life. I touched it and immediately admired the quality of construction. It distracted me from the night before. What if I had HIV? What if I was pregnant? Misplaced underwear was replaced by a bespoke vest. Dignity and cheerfulness. 

A Kenyan walking through Toi Market

Two months earlier, I had crossed into Tanzania in an attempt to renew my internship pass. I was studying Social Innovation Management at Amani Institute in Nairobi at the time. My 12 months abroad had ended with me working for a social enterprise, Lynk, where I was sourcing high-quality Kenyan craftsmanship for furniture and fashion design. I had caught the fashion innovator’s bug! 

Only in Africa can you design something and find a tailor to create it for a fraction of the cost of a designer suit in Canada. It might just be pole pole, made slowly-slowly. There’s no rush in Africa. Sometimes, you’ll find a really beautiful item but it is “docali” or made to last for a few days, so you’ll come back and need a tailor again. Not this vest. It’s stood up well against the test of time, dust and activity in places I’ve called home: Canada, USA, Kenya and Tanzania. I have worn it so many times and even inside out. A couple of years ago, a model with cerebral palsy wore it in an adaptive fashion show. This vest started my design journey and made me think about how fashion can be used to include people who are often forgotten by the mainstream market. 

Karen in Africa teaching

Years later, I continue to surround myself with kitenge pieces. Now, I design them. I’m currently designing an emergency rape kit in a backpack for communities in Africa. I hope to return to Moshi to test it with the Tanzanian hospital that didn’t take good care of me, with the help of my favorite policeman and lawyer Mr. Kapusi. We both love Tupac and Tanzanian DJs still... 

Design can change your life if you let it. I am so grateful to Tatu Rafiki for sewing a piece to give way to new beginnings. Fashion is mindful. It allowed me to redesign my state of panic after that night, into what I consider important. Asante sana Tatu Rafiki, thanks so much three friends. I never told you how much your vest means to me.

If you have stories of fashion transforming your life after trauma, please DM or email Karen at karefourhart@gmail.com.You can follow along her journey on Instagram @kare4hart or on her website.

Leave a comment