22 March 2019

Africa: Why the National Dress Continues to Be Elusive


Dar es Salaam — Clothing make a man, so they say. It is a form of identity that a folk costume expresses an identity through which is usually associated with a geographic area or a period of time in history.

It can also indicate social, marital and religious status. Such costumes often come in two forms: one for everyday occasions, the other for festivals and formal wear.

Many nationalities identify themselves through their traditional wear, one that has been around for centuries.

Almost 10 years ago or so, Tanzania embarked on a journey that aimed at coming up with a national dress which would form part of the country's identity.

As a result designers, fashionistas and opinion makers were brought on board for a nation's noble cause; the task at hand was to come up with something that would be acceptable for every Tanzanian.

It was a moment of grandiose as the nation wallowed in the euphoria of a potential national dress at last, which was perhaps the missing piece in the jigsaw.

Several questions came up then. Would Tanzanians with established traditional folk costumes be ready to abandon their cultural heritages for the chosen national dress?

Many argued then that what the nation had embarked on would only produce official wears and not a national dress because it wouldn't be possible to persuade communities to abandon age-old traditions. The early buzz soon died and within months nobody was interested in discussing the subject, the campaign went quiet without trace, becoming more of a mystery.

Three years ago it seemed the myth had finally been unwrapped, it was some mission impossible as the then Minister for Information Culture Arts and Sports Nape Nauye admitted in parliament that the search had come to halt as reported by our sister paper Mwananchi.

"One of the standing issues was the fact that Tanzania has over 120 tribes, each with its own identity," Nape was quoted saying.

The minister argued that even the countries whose examples of national dress have been widely quoted did not get their attires through such process; instead, these were attires that became acceptable due to certain influences.

"You cannot force people to wear something that they are not interested in."

But even with such complexities which are mainly derived from Tanzania's diversity there seems to be renewed vigour and optimism at the ministry that this dream is achievable.

An official from the National Arts Council admits that the national dress search is being handled at the ministry level and not much has been divulged.

In Tanzania there are certain examples of communities that have traditional dresses such as the Maasai with the Shuka and the Haya with the Kanzu are attires that have been around for hundreds of years.

Similar efforts in Kenya failed to give them a truly national dress and to date Kenya doesn't have what they can call national attire.

The African case

Traditional dresses in Africa is dictated to as much by the climate in which they live, as it is by the culture, and an individual's socioeconomic standing.

Many of the different parts of the continent play home to a different nationality of people, with their own distinct traditional dress.

And while modern times have seen a move away from the traditional dress for many of these people there are some that have stuck to it.


The traditional dress of the Maasia varies both by the age of the person wearing it, and by their location. Young men, for example, wear black for several months after their circumcision.

In the Maasia tribe, red is a favoured colour. In the early days the Maasai wore calf hides and sheep skins. Thereafter, these animal skin clothes were traded with commercial cotton known as Shúka, which are traditionally worn wrapped around the body.

This bead work has held a prominent place in the culture of the Maasai, as a means through which they can articulate their identities and position in society.


Unlike the other people of the Mediterranean, who traditionally wore one or two big pieces of cloth wrapped around themselves in a number of ways, the Egyptians traditional clothes were nearly always white linen tunics that were sewn to fit them. Barefoot or wearing straw or leather sandals, both men and women wore eye shadow and lined their eyes with black kohl. The black kohl served to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun.


Traditional wear on this island off the eastern coast of Africa involves wearing the Lamba, which directly translated, means cloth or clothing.

This normally consists of two matching pieces of fabric in the women's case, and just one for the men. In yesteryear, the Lamba was all that was worn, but nowadays it has been coupled with Western clothing. Nearly all women in Madagascar wear a Lamba in the event of a death or another occasion for prayers to the ancestors.

The Lamba is an important piece of traditional wear due to its capability of fulfilling a myriad of functions throughout day-to-day island life.


The mushanana is the traditional ceremonial dress of women in Rwanda. It consists of a wrapped skirt bunched at the hips and a sash draped over one shoulder, typically worn over a tank top or bustier.

The fabric used for the mushanana may be any color and is often gauzy and lightweight to create a flowing effect.

Mushanana is no longer frequently used as daily wear, but rather are worn on formal occasions such as to attend church services, weddings or funerals. They are standard costumes for female dancers in Intore dance troupes.


The Gomesi, also called a Busuuti is a colorful floor-length dress. It is the most commonly used costume for women in Buganda and Busoga.

Traditional male attire is the kanzu. There are many variations to the origins of the Gomesi.

One such is that the Gomesi existed long before the missionaries and Indians came to Uganda, however, the missionaries introduced the use of cotton instead of the bark cloth, from which the Gomesi was originally made. When the Indians came to Uganda, they added the various fabrics from satin/silk blends and the vibrant colors to the traditional attire.

The Baganda were the first nationality to wear the Gomesi. Today the Gomesi is the Kiganda traditional dress for women and is also worn by other ethnicities in Uganda


In Mozambique, the way people dress reflects the confluence of different cultures that are found there, as well as the different economic standing of its individuals. In the cities, men wear Western-style suits for work, while women retain the brightly coloured fabrics of traditional wear, albeit in more Western-style designed dresses.

In the rural areas of the country, women retain the wearing of traditions, which consists of long strips of fabric wrapped around the body and over one shoulder.

The youth in Mozambique almost exclusively wear western clothing styles, although despite this some popular pieces of American and European have not been adopted, including blue jeans and short skirts. Clothing in Mozambique doubles as a market of ethnic identity, with the Muslims in the North wearing traditional long white robes and head coverings, for example.

Excepts were taken from Jenman African Safaris


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