Friday, September 10, 2004

Tushone Nguo: Pondering A Kenyan National Dress

Some Reflections from Onyango Oloo's Archives in Montreal

Saturday, July 19, 2003

It has been embarrassing and comical to read of the fulminations of the Speaker of the Kenyan National Assembly as he lambasted parliamentarians for their "improper" African attire.

The fact that we have to witness the spectacle of African politicians throwing out other African politicians from an African parliament because these African politicians are not dressed in European clothes, is to the say the least, humiliating, reminding us of the line in Fela Kuti's song about the "African Gentleman" who "put on singlet, put on tie, put on shirt, put on suit" and ends up "smelling like shit" in the sweltering African sun.

A debate of sorts has broken out, in isolated pockets in cyberspace and in the letters section of Kenya's newspapers.

Do we have a national dress?

What is the most appropriate way of dressing to formal occasions like parliamentary proceedings?

One Kenyan woman, in a fierce defence of Western attire, has scornfully referred to Agbadas and other African forms of dressing as "bed sheets" wondering, with withering sarcasm whether our esteemed politicians should show up in public in animal skins like the days of yore.

Well known leaders like Raila Odinga and Koigi wa Wamwere (not coincidentally, two of the longest serving political prisoners in Kenya) defied the hapless Kaparo, showing up in flowing and resplendent Nigerian and other African garb:

Of course the nay Sayers and Saville Row aficionados have been quick to stress that Kenyans are NOT Nigerians.

Living in Montreal, a city whose African population is very proud of its African heritage, where you see Black people, not just from Africa, but from the Caribbean and the rest of the Diaspora proudly wearing African shirts, gowns and vests, it is a bit surreal reading on the internet these neocolonial exchanges taking place in my native Kenya-the country which helped to bequeath to the world the ubiquitous dreadlocks. It actually makes me ashamed to be a Kenyan in a certain sense.

At the same time, this is not an issue to moralize about.

The fact that we are having this discussion at all points to a stark fact:

Kenya does not have an identifiable, independent NATIONAL cultural identity to speak of.

And this has largely to do with the related fact that we as Kenyans never completed the process of fighting for our national independence from the imperialists.

Our country is still very much under the thumb of Britain, the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Italy and other Western powers.

Many years ago, when I was cooped up in a solitary cell in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, I composed the following lines, thinking of the same subject:

they exploit us economically
they enslave us politically
they dominate us culturally
they shortchange us commercially
they confuse us ideologically
they marginalize us technologically
but do we need them actually
do we need them actually?
do we really need them actually?

It is the cultural aspect of this imperialist domination that I would like to grapple with.

My friend Mwandawiro Mghanga has spoken of a Mitumba Culture. The great Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, spoke of a Kasuku Culture.

Let me pause to explain to the non-Kenyans in the audience what these two concepts mean.

Mitumba is a colloquial expression for second hand clothes, common in Kenya and other African countries. Most of these hand me down garments flood the open air market after being offloaded from containers in Mombasa from their origins in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. Thanks to the IMF driven austerity measures, most Kenyans can not afford to buy even the cheapest brand new clothes on a regular basis to meet one of the most basic human needs- clothing. Like vultures hovering over a carcass, Kenyan traders inside and outside the country have tried to fill this void through the importation of cheap second hand clothes. One of the immediate consequences of this has been the near decimation of the indigenous textile industry, with many mills running way below capacity and thousands of textile workers fired and retrenched.

Culture is a reference to the second hand culture that has evolved. It is just not a penchant for second hand goods, but a penchant for a second hand culture. Kenyans are avid consumers of used cars from the Emirates, cancelled soap operas from the States, ancient comedies from the British Isles, complete with indecipherable canned laughter, hand me down hip hop mannerisms, ridiculous private school mimicry, yesterday's North American slang and other derivative cultural by-products of the Western consumer society. Most of the time we can not afford the plane tickets to come to America or go to Europe to consume these products and services live,direct and in person, so we must be content, not even with pale and stale local imitations, but the third hand discards of previously loved expired items, services and by products from these decadent societies. For instance, the vast majority us were not born with natural blonde hair, so what do we do? We dye our African hair blonde or insist on those golden braids!

Closely related to the Mitumba Second Hand Culture is the Kasuku Culture.

Kasuku is Kiswahili for parrot.

Need I say more?

We know that try as hard as it might, the parrot will never ever graduate into a human conversing naturally with other humans about a range of topics.

We have a very despicable Kasuku culture in Kenya. We parrot everything European and American. Our lawyers, magistrates and judges still wear those ridiculous woolen wigs-even at a time when their originators the British are thinking of getting rid of them. At a recent high-profile wedding, one of the country's most prominent politicians came out dressed like a butler at a Halloween party. We pride ourselves on our perfect English diction while boasting of how we can not "debase" ourselves to speak Kiswahili, our national language. Ask any young Kenyan to name you the first 27 CDs in their collection and chances are that the majority is a reflection of this year's and last year's Billboard 200. We still have residential neighbourhoods in Nairobi called Karen, Hurlingham and...let me not torture you any further.

This Mitumba and Kasuku culture has a lot to do with the dependent structure of our economy.

Forty years after formal flag independence, Kenya is still a Tea Protectorate, A Coffee Republic, A Tourist Attraction and a Horticultural Plantation.

As we speak, our national hospitals are so bad that our top leaders are forced to travel outside the country to seek medical attention!

You can surmise what happens to the average Mwananchi who can not afford a return bus fare to Nairobi, leave alone board a plane to an exclusive spa in Switzerland.

Politically, we still take a lot of our orders from Washington and Whitehall. Witness how quickly our government buckled under pressure to introduce the Terrorism Bill�..

We should therefore, not be surprised that we DO NOT HAVE A NATIONAL DRESS. That to me, is the least of our problems in Kenya today.

I feel that the calls to the country's designers to dream up a "national dress" are slightly misplaced-because it is like, to use a cliche, putting the cart before the horse.

It is not an accident that countries like Ghana,Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and even poor little Burkina Faso all have a national dress to speak of.

Now, it is not that these West African countries are more politically liberated or more economically independent than Kenya. In some cases, the ties to the West are even stronger.


Those countries have two things that Kenyans do not have.

First and foremost, by and large, those countries had a very long history predating colonialism where Africans forged their own strong social systems and developed their own way of life. We have all read of the famous Mali, Songhai, Ghana, Benin, and the host of Yoruba kingdoms and city states. In Kenya, the only places which come close are the coastal city states of Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and so on. And it is no accident that watu wa pwani wa Kenya have a very distinct culture, language, architecture, music,literature, and of course way of dress.

Secondly, in those West African countries, in spite of the neocolonial dark clouds, there was a concerted attempt to promote African culture in its specific local varieties. Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, invested very heavily, in the immediate post colonial period in developing its national culture and promoting a Pan African consciousness among her people. This was even before the revolutionary intervention of Thomas Sankara and his comrades in the mid 1980s. We are talking of the early to mid sixties. Today, it is reaping a huge harvest: Burkina Faso leads all of Africa in terms of independent and professional film makers.

Kenya has a very short history as a nation.

We are largely a product of colonialism which carved out Kenya out of disparate communities and nationalities at the end of the 19th century. Throughout the colonial period, the British actively fostered a divide and conquer mentality that Kenyans divided along tribal lines. These policies were continued by the neo-colonial Kenyatta and Moi regimes that followed in the wake of orthodox colonialism. I have detailed, elsewhere, in my discussion around language policy, how there was a deliberate attempt to stifle the development of Kenyan local languages in favour of English.

We have simply not invested enough in the development of national culture. We find it easier to import substandard television fare that has been cancelled in the West instead of developing our own. We turn a blind eye when our local musicians are robbed blind by brazen pirates hawking their cheap counterfeits openly in the streets in broad daylight; we applaud the parvenu rulers and the nouveau riche when they floss about their overseas shopping trips; we prepare our offspring for a life as "expatriates" abroad by taking them to exclusive international schools; we hire mediocre managers from England to come and oversee our local banks;one could go on and on...

From the foregoing it is clear that I do not think that we should simply organize a Kenyan National Dress Competition and award the bid for the New Kenyan National Dress to the eventual winner.

It is slightly more complex than that.

We must start by revisiting our national priorities.

Perhaps it is high time to look inwards, rather than outwards for inspiration, new ideas and fresh blood.

Perhaps if we reinvigorated our national textile industry and passed laws protecting it from dumping while making its products more accessible to the average Mwananchi, not too many people would be rushing to Gikomba to exercise the privilege of being the 15th owner of that fading Nike jersey or the 8th proud wearer (is there such a word?) of those Diesel jeans.

Maybe if we actually sat down and wrote down a serious national cultural development plan and went ahead to implement it in stages, perhaps we would be going somewhere.

Other than all those macro things, there are a number of immediate steps that could be taken:

1.Banishing those ridiculous wigs from the heads of our country's legal beagles.
2.Passing a special motion in parliament recognizing the freedom to choose from a range of formal wear from around the world.
3.Setting up a special institute, scholarship programme or annual competition (all three would be stupendous) to encourage young Kenyacentric designers and tailors to develop their creativity.
4.Putting more public and private investment into the country's textile industry

Tips to Kenyan Designers:

Hint#1: There is an untapped market for Kenyan specific African clothing. I can tell you that I would be one of your first customers. Those of us who live outside the country crave for anything Kenyan. Our homes are littered with giant Kenyan flags- we drink from mugs painted with Kenyan colours and open our doors with keys hanging from chains with Kenyan logos. I will easily pay up to 25 dollars for a nicely designed Kenyan T-shirt. Already it is not a problem to pay 15 dollars for a regular T shirt with something Kenyan on it.

Hint#2: Learn from how the top designers create a buzz for their latest creations. If you have ever watched the major awards shows like the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, the NAACP and the BET awards then you know what I am talking about. If you don't, let me spell it out for you then. The famous fashion houses- Giorgio Armani, Versace, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, Prada, Helmut Lang, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, Donna Karan, Sean John, FUBU, Enyce, Yves. St. Laurent etc will target a high profile person like Toni Braxton, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Antonio Banderas or Catherine Zeta Jones or even Lil'Kim and offer to dress them for the occasion. They cross their fingers hoping that the celebrity's ego and vanity will get the better of them. They then sit back and rub their hands in anticipatory glee at all the FREE PUBLICITY generated with all the blather and chatter by Joan Rivers and all those airheads on Entertainment Tonight, People magazine and the supermarket tabloids.

Can you say "Ka-ching" Lead me to the bank!�?

Given that we do not have a"KOLLYWOOD" to speak of in Kenya; your next bet is to target the newsmakers and opinion leaders in Kenyan society. Who are these people? Well, first and foremost, the politicians- the Kibakis, the Railas, the Balalas, Kilimos, Karuas and Naomi Shabaans. Then you have your sports figures and media personalities. You have your peer leaders from all sections of society.

What do you do with these people?

Instead of trying to slave away for the perfect national dress that will be officially embraced by an act of parliament, why don't you do something more mundane, crasser and more prosaic:

In a shameless act of self-promotion, create a design and offer it free of charge to any of the above personalities with the only condition that they wear this design in public. Now you know our Kenyans, especially our mothers and sisters- no self-respecting fashionista wants to be caught dead with the same threads week in and week out- so, develop a range- maybe a bunch of seven- one for each day of the week and a new design every other month.

Now assuming that only 20 designers in the country took up this suggestion, how many variations of Kenyan national dress would we have in circulation after only two years?

Onyango Oloo
Saturday, July 19th, 2003


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