The Ministry of Gender, Culture and Sports with Unilever launched what they termed the Sunlight Quest for Kenya’s First National Dress, in April 2004. BOBASTLES OWINO NONDI with OGOVA ONDEGO, analyses the project.
Stella Awinja, a senior civil servant, wears a Sh50 blouse, Sh30 bra, Sh50 panties, Sh200 jacket, Sh150 trousers or skirt, purse of Sh300, shoes of Sh400, Sh1000 hairdo, Sh7000 mobile phone and an optional Sh100 sunglasses.
Clad in a dirty-blue jeans suit, white camisole, white sneakers, and carrying a teddy-bear purse complete with sunglasses held by the round collar of her top, Diana, a student at the University of Nairobi, cannot comprehend what Kenyans want a national dress for: “Who wants to spend tens of thousands of shillings on a dress when you can be this cute with 2K [Sh2000, i.e. about US$25] only?” she poses in a city in which a ‘hotly dressed’ woman simply wears a Sh1200 (about US$15) attire.
It is against this background that most people interviewed by ArtMatters.Info termed the Unilever-fronted quest for a Kenya national dress ‘a waste of time and resources.’
Apart from the national flag, Kenya is set to have a national dress that cuts across her diverse ethnic and racial divide. With each of the more than 42 ethnic communities in Kenya having its own traditional practices and symbols that make it unique, this is a task that has proved elusive in the past. First of all, it is the height of folly for any one to describe this new attempt as ‘the first’ shot at a national garb when the search for such an attire has been an ‘on and off’ activity since the 1960s.
Mary Kadenge, a Nairobi designer who was involved in trying to evolve a national dress in the 1960s, says, “It is a difficult task to try and get a national dress; cultural differences always crop up whenever the idea is mooted.”
Another designer, Margaret Akumu Gould–like Unilever–had embarked on the crusade for a national garb in the late 1980s when she organised the ‘first ever’ National Dress Competition at Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. Fifteen years later, in 1995, Gould linked up with the Kenya Tourism Foundation (KTF) to come up with a National Dress Competition which featured more than 20 designers from whom designs by Christine Ndambuki and Wacu of Wacu Designs were selected. While the former had created a Nigerian-inspired gown for men, the latter had a Kikoi dress for women. These ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ designs disappeared into oblivion.
African Heritage of Alan Donovan and Sheila and Joseph Murumbi had from 1975 to 2001 provided costumes to Miss Kenya contestants in Miss World and Miss Universe competitions, respectively. They had, however, not developed a national dress for Kenya. Why?
Donovan, who has since retired and sold off African Heritage, said in 2001, “Kenyans are not interested in a national dress.”
In their bid to appear African, many people–including politicians Moody Awori, Raila Odinga, Koigi wa Wamwere, Prof Peter Anyang Nyong’o and political activist Orie Rogo-Manduli–have taken to West African ethnic dresses that they mistakenly take to be national dresses of Nigeria or Ghana.
Tunde Oladunjoye, a Nigerian journalist, confirms that Nigeria has no national garb and that his Yoruba people wear Agbada, a wide-armed piece of clothing with V-shaped neck worn by men on festive occasions. Agbada is worn on top of a loose neck shirt (Buba) that reaches down the thighs and trousers (sokoto). With these goes either a round cap (fila) slid on the head or abeti-aja, a specially made cap that have flaps the shape of dog’s ears folded up when worn. Yoruba women wear buba, Iro (bottom part for buba), gele (the headgear), and iborun or ipele (an extra scarf tied around the neck or tied diagonally across the body).
Muslim women from northern Nigeria adorn flowing black gowns and veils for their head and faces while men wear white robes and a cap made in different designs and embroidery. Despite this, Sola Odunfa writes in BBC Focus on Africa magazine that Western suits are still favoured by businessmen and young people.
During Joseph Desire Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign in Congo-Kinshasa that he renamed Zaire, he favoured abacost, derived from French a bas le costume, i.e. ‘down with the suit’. He banned European and Western styles of importing clothing in favour of ‘a return to the authentic Zaire.’ Many Congolese, especially those in showbiz as epitomised by Papa Wemba, don Western designer clothes–Armani, Jimmy Weston, Legs–in ‘Authenticity coup.’
The founding father of the Tanzanian nation, Julius Kambarage Nyerere’s attempts to impose a uniform dress–collarless Mao suit–for Tanzanians fell flat on his face. Later he started favouring Kaunda suits, the quadri-pocketed short-sleeved jacket suits of the then Zambian President Dr Kenneth Kaunda, or Safari suits, which subsequently became the de facto national dress of Tanzania.
Although some erroneously regard ‘busuti’ or ‘gomasi’ as the national dresses of Uganda, these attires belong to communities like Baganda and Banyankole and are only differentiated in the manner in which the garb is tied during occasions like weddings and funerals.
Baganda men don white robes with coats and kofias much like the Waswahili who, like them, were influenced by Muslim Arabs. Uganda has no national dress.
Although no one says it, it appears the quest for a national dress appears to be springing from the challenge Malian designer Alphadi presented to Kenyans during the 3rd Nairobi Fashion Week in 2003. Barely a month after the celebrated African fashion designer had challenged Africans to market Africa on the world stage through fashion, two Members of Parliament, Koigi wa Wamwere and Paul Gor Sunguh, were thrown out of Parliament for what was described as improper dressing.
A few days later, Parliamentary Speaker Francis ole Kaparo praised Public Works and Housing Minister, Raila Amolo Odinga, for being smartly dressed when he turned up in a Nigerian outfit similar to the ones wa Wamwere and Sunguh had donned. Pundits were quick to point out that this was a positive move towards achieving a national attire in the East African nation whose citizens are described by their neighbours as being “more British than the British themselves” in dress and mannerism.
“A culture without fashion,” Alphadi had said in June 2003, “is a dead culture because fashion is about developing ideas, creativity and vibrancy of the people and their lives.”
The designer had said fashion industry should be considered an important part in developing Africa, stressing the importance of the industry in the provision of foreign exchange and uniting the continent.
So, how exactly will Kenyans arrive at a generally accepted national dress?
Even if the dress is to be made from ties from Coastal Bantu Giriama, Digo, Taita or Duruma; dyes from the Cushitic Galla, Rendile, Borana, Oromo or Gabbra; pieces of regalia from the hunters and gatherers: Sanye, Ogiek, Dorobo, or Elmolo; beadworks from the Nilotic families of Kalenjin – Terik, Pokot, Elgeyo, Marakwet or Tugen; yarns from the Maasai, Samburu or Njemps with colours from Teso, Turkana or Sabaot; laces from Swahili Bajun, Pate or Vumba; design from Kikuyu, Luo, Luyia, Kamba or Kisii, borrowing pleats and knots from the Akorino sect, or the simplicity of Muslims’ bui bui, and tailored to suit every other community and individual taste, will it also suit every other pocket?
Considering that Kenya is a country whose majority populace is still struggling with how to divide its meagre resources on basic needs like paraffin, flour, sukuma wiki, salt and cooking oil, for whom is this ‘National Dress’ intended?
Most Kenyans say designer-clothes can’t be meant for Wanjiku, the common citizen. But can there be Kenyan that is not Wanjiku’s? That would be like a tree without roots. Whether such a tree would stand the test of time is a question this country, now imperilled by poverty, threatened with cultural, health and environmental decay, seething with conflict between political class, tribal interests, religious creed and greed, almost tearing itself apart over the writing of a new constitution, will stand to answer.
Kitenge, a cotton fabric made into various colours and design through tie-and-dye and heavy embroidery, is generally accepted as the African dress. Though used in many African countries, Kitenge is yet to be accepted as an official dress as it is only worn during ceremonies and non-official functions.
Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, and Somalia are some of the African countries where kitenge is worn. In Malawi, Namibia and Zambia, kitenge is known as Chitenge. Could this be adopted as Kenya’s national dress? How about the khanga or lesso that is widely used along the East African coast?
So, is the quest for a national dress in Kenya and Tanzania a case of ‘national dressing’ or ‘dressing nationalism’?