By Steven Tendo, Bobastles Owino Nondi and Ogova Ondego
Published October 9, 2004
Women in urban East Africa no longer consider their underwear a private matter but glide along streets and hang around city malls baring their inner wear for all and sundry. STEVEN TENDO, BOBASTLES OWINO NONDI, and OGOVA ONDEGO report.
During the second Pearl of Africa Music Awards presentation on October 2, 2004, Winnie Munyenga, winner of Best New Artist award, lashed out at media photographers for what she termed as taking pictures between the legs of women.
It was said she was referring to a Kampala newspaper that had published a picture in which her underwear was exposed. But one need not be a photographer to notice that women in urban East Africa no longer consider their underwear a private matter but glide along streets and hang around city malls bearing their inner wear for all and sundry.
We were at a Nairobi fast foods café when a gawking group of young men and women drew our attention to a woman seated on a high stool with her white nylon panties and blue jeans trousers slipped down her buttocks leaving the parting between them exposed to the elements. She was totally unconcerned as she munched her lunch and washed it down with a soda.
A similar experience occurred at a cyber café where another woman sat, browsing the Internet without a care in the world and with her buttocks exposed. Some other time while flying from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi we sat next to a woman who appeared to be dead-set on flaunting her buttocks and not underwear. And so she did lots of leaning forward to draw our attention to her behind. And these scenes can be replicated anywhere in urban centres in the Eastern African region. All kinds of women-young and old, fat and scrawny, educated and non-literate, wealthy and materially challenged-appear to have been swept off their feet by this fad. One of the most outstanding aspects of East African society in recent times is the way fashion is mutating.
It boggles the mind that just a few years ago, most of the urban people in Kampala, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were still largely prudish and they would not easily be convinced to bare their under clothing.
Young women all over the region appear to have gone out of their way to wear more revealing clothes every day and one can’t be wrong to assume that it is more than just a fad. It is no longer enough to peg the trend down to the African disease of aping everything Western because the greatest icons from the west, the pop musicians and the Hollywood stars don’t seem to be showing their underwear any more.
“I think it is more to do with a stagnant perception that it is cool,” Diane Nanziri says. She is a student of art majoring in fashion design and winner of the Student Award at the recent Kampala International Fashion Week.
“Girls are stuck in the past and I wonder what they will do when suddenly they wake up to realise that the times have long since changed. It is not a smart thing to move around with underwear showing any more,” she says.
But could it be that East African women are being manipulated to wear clothes that are structurally a misfit and that the fashion-belief in exposing panties is sheer ignorance among them?
The majority of women with exposed underwear are not necessarily those with a wider mezzanine section but even those with slimmer bodies regarded as beautiful according to western judgment. The reason for this exposure, therefore, is deliberate and not out of ignorance.
Perhaps this explains why, years into this practice some of the women still feel the embarrassment and are forced to cover their backs with lesos, sweaters, scarves or mere hands as they stride along the streets, boarding or alighting from a bus, or bending over to pick a thing from a street vendor.
Many of them are in the constant work of pulling up the pants or skirt, which appear to uncover unwanted parts with each step they make. You are reminded of those days when boys used to sag their trousers, but without exposing their bodies. In all, showing off of panties seem to lend an air of uneasiness both to the wearer and the ‘viewers’.
There have been instances where such women are forced to remain seated in public transport vehicles until everyone is off so as to avoid ‘being seen’ as they bend their way out. Boarding vehicles causes similar uneasiness.
At some social places and churches, some, if they don’t have additional material to hang around, are very specific with their sitting point, which must be with their backs to the wall or at the back rows. Matters are even made worse when that particular woman, lost in the confusion, does no know what she is expected to show off! Such women wear equally sparse panty or simple thong that disappears somewhere below the cut leaving the arse widely uncovered. Whereas those sympathetic to the wave would argue this is the intention, they fail to enlighten the leave-my-arse-alone trendsetters in this region that such expositions are only trendy and more appealing if they revealed a catchy tattoo from under.
Call it backwardness if you like, but majority of people in this region, men and women alike, have refused to come to terms with the acceptance of this as fashionable. Along the streets there is endless exclamations and lamentations: “Isn’t she shaming women!”; “Does she have parents at home?”; “She needed to have powdered her back!”; “Can’t she get a better panty!”; “What makes her think she is cute and trendy in that?”.
“It is unfair that when women try to be trendy,” says ,” Sandra Ntege, “men will always find a reason to water down our efforts. Right now, I have to first look out to see if my dad is out of the house before I can go out with hipsters. Of course they ride low and they expose my underwear.”
Sandra Ntege is one of the many girls in Kampala who are taking their freedom very seriously. When she is at school at Makerere University, she is transformed from the meek ‘daddy’s girl’ she is at home to a naughty vixen who is not afraid to flaunt her sexuality.
But there are those who think it is not a problem and the young women are not guilty of any crime.
One such person is Julius Asiimwe, a fashion designer in down town Kampala. He says society should cut the girls some slack.
“The girls are only trying to look good. It is not their fault that the Jeans that come down to us from the West are not designed for the African woman’s form. Of course the Jeans will always slide down and the panties will peak,” he says.
Other women take the trouble to whisper out to their friends, or even to strangers, to ‘sit properly’ or ‘cover your back’. In a similar incident, a woman literally threw herself behind another woman covering her with all she had: a purse and a small scarf, as they alighted from a vehicle in Nairobi City Centre.
With a very small binding top, a pair of trousers that cannot go high above the hipbone whatsoever the cas , and a thong which had slithered upwards only to stick above her waistline, the would-have-been fashionable woman continued to seek the assistance of that ‘Good Samaritan’ as she looked for a place to straighten things up.
But why should a person wear what out rightly embarrasses her despite the fact that other people are either oblivious to her predicament or do not care a thing?
But as you think about this, it is important to note that the exposure of underwear is not restricted to the rear.
The mass media have been a strong purveyor of the trend. It has become a staple of our newspapers to see women’s underclothing. A few years ago, the runaway hit, Sisquo’s The Thong Song, caused a major stir all over the world. Sales of women’s underwear leaped. Although it has not been known to happen in East Africa, nightclubs in New York gave free entry to women who came with thong panties. In East Africa of yore, that would have been scandalous and it could probably have caused a major socio-political battle.
Nonetheless, the enthusiasm for the trend has not diminished in modern East Africa where young women seem to be taking to the freedom of flashing their panties with a passion.
A Kenyan woman living in Germany says a woman who wants to reveal her panties to the public should ensure she has quality and expensive inner clothing to impress and not the cheap second hand nylon or synthetic underwear most of them wear.