22 April 2014

Africa: Save the Miniskirt! Why Do Generations Divide Over the African Way?


There is a trend emerging in social media, mostly amongst people in their 30s and 40s and sometimes even 50s that consists of sharing family pictures from their childhood days.

It is a wonderful visual record of an era that was charmingly optimistic. The fashions are compelling - as anyone who is paying attention will have noticed there is a surge in post-independence era styles amongst the fashionistas of the African diaspora and beyond.

The photos give away something of the character of what I like to call Generation Independence, people who have graduated to elder status now.

It is there in the His and Hers individual photographs: lovely studio portraits in black and white with the subject usually looking off to the side of the camera, bristling with youthful vitality. He will be sporting a fiercely sculpted Afro with a carefully straight side-parting. She will be naturally gorgeous and glowing with health in a beautifully-tailored minidress, lips curved in a gentle smile.

Yes, that's right- in a minidress. Most of the family albums I have come across, especially those containing pictures from the sixties, are teeming with women in outfits whose hemlines are well north of their knees. So it was a bit of a surprise to come across a poster by Ugandan activists for the brilliant campaign to 'save the miniskirt' a few years ago. Who, exactly, was trying to drive it to extinction?

I wonder whether the sixties mini-skirt and 'fro and seventies maxidress and 'fro phenomenon and that incredibly awful eighties boxy suit trend that I have been quietly observing was a uniquely Tanzanian phenomenon. Surely not?

I raise this in light of a creeping trend of neo-conservatism that is threatening to smother conversations about direct political confrontation on any number of issues - liquor laws, labour, land issues, freedom of information and expression, leadership, education, sexual politics - between the younger generation of Tanzanians and the older ones. In the past decade I have become used to hearing the phrase "nyie vijana wa siku hizi!' meaning 'youth these days!' uttered in bewilderment and disgust. Apparently we, I mean they, are a handful.

What I want to address is the hypocrisy behind this inter-generational exasperation. For years now I have been running an informal biography project, in the sense that I will take any chance to sit with an elder and, if they are amenable to it, ask very nosy questions about their lives, usually their youth.

This is an attempt to fill the gaping void of contemporary African history and culture that feels like a missing limb in the identity debate.

It is also a way to try to contain in the one word 'African' all the diversity of experiences I have had living in several different countries without doing fatal damage to the term. Because anyone who uses the term African with too much rigidity is of course guilty of essentialising, and that is the key ingredient of racism isn't it?

Ah, the stories. It seems that life was just as interesting half a decade ago as it is now. Independence was sweeping across the continent and Africans were suddenly thrust at a young age into all kinds of new situations. Those who were able, went to school, wore the latest fashions, were belligerently 'modern' and moved to the city.

There was energetic music in dance halls and, well, let's call it 'dating' to go along with the hard liquor and the palm and banana wines and the sorghum and millet beers. Adventure, and a whole new world of possibility open to youth who were willing to imagine, to risk, to go further than their fathers or mothers had ever been. This was Africa.

But this was the Africa of the emerging elite political and social class. Mission-schooled more often than not and in direct competition with what was left of 'traditional' power after the colonials were done with it.

There must have been intergenerational contention on many of the same issues that get raised today: liquor laws, labour, land issues, freedom of information and expression, leadership, education and sexual politics.

Yet here we are, modern nation states, so guess who won? Ah, that's right: The people who would age to become our 'NeoConservatives' - working from a platform of religion and tradition to maintain authority over the youthful competition.

Africa, right now, is nothing if not young. According to the State of East Africa Report for 2013, the region's estimated population of 144 million has a median age that ranges between 15 and 19 across the five countries surveyed.

According to their online profiles at the writing of this article President Museveni of Uganda is aged 69, President Kikwete is 63, President Kagame is an energetic 56, whilst Presidents Kenyatta and Nkurunzinza are relative spring chickens in their early 50s.

To their credit they do try, with the Twitter and the Facebook pages and the reaching out to youth especially around election time when they need a bit of a helping hand.

Unfortunately, this willingness to appear contemporary doesn't quite mask the tone of command in their missives, nor their cranky-old-man irritation when "young people" don't display the desired levels of unquestioning obedience (something they probably never showed to their own elders.)

When current youth are accused of moral decay, of acting 'unAfrican' by these kinds of administrations one must engage in a bit of cherchez la femme - sometimes quite literally so.

Consider our rampant sugar-daddy culture. Recently the Kenyan Parliament passed a bill that pretty much legalizes polyandry without restrictions from existing spouses, blocking a wife's prerogative to mitigate the potential consequences of her husband's appetites.

Now who has the upper hand in the ageless intergenerational competition for nubile female interest? Not the largely unemployed 15-30 year olds, that's for sure. And that is just one issue.

The others can be studied through the themes and lyrics in our local hip hop culture. Consumption culture and good times show up a lot, but so do politics and the hypercritical behavior of a leadership class that exhorts citizens, especially youth, to live obediently above reproach when unfortunately their own behaviours stem from the 'do as I say, not as I do' school of thought.

And so we campaign for mini-skirts to be saved from extinction, for deeper democracy and better schools and growth in the formal labour market while yes, going out to clubs and consuming all that tasty advertised and easily available locally-distilled liquor and smoking the cigarettes just like the guys and girls on the billboards and spending our pocket money from our sugar daddies on touchscreen mobile phones and airtime.

What is the African way? Is there one? Or does the problem lie entirely with the question to begin with?

Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at mikochenireport.blogspot.com @MikocheniReport

This article was commissioned via the African Journalism Fund.

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