Kenya has more than 70 ethnic communities, which isn’t as common as you would think. To say that we have had one national dress that goes from region to region throughout the country without variation isn’t necessarily accurate. We couldn’t really have a national dress that characterized traditions, ethnic tastes, culture and rituals of the whole country. All our tribes have historically unique traditions in clothing. Sadly that means there has been no unified national dress. Around 2004 there was a project by the government to create a national dress. Sadly the dresses were very expensive and not everybody agreed with the designs. Read this BCC article to find out more on why Kenyan dress code failed to appeal.
In fact, it has happened that Kenyan women who were supposed to represent their countries at international forums, bought traditional Nigerian clothes as they could not identify original Kenya clothing. However, some tribes have largely kept their traditional dress and life style. The Maasai are the most famous, but this also goes for the Samburu (which are closely related to the Maasai) and the Turkana peoples, who live in the north.
Africa in general has shared one thing when it comes to dress all throughout history. We love vibrant colours! Jenman Safaris mentions that it is highly likely that the first kind of cloth on the continent was made from pounded bark fibres. People would peel bark from the trees and pound it with a rock, until it was thin and bendable. This produced small pieces of cloth that could be sewn together to produce a bigger cloth to cover the body. This was a widely used practice, and different regions made use of different trees for the bark, with people in Uganda using the bark from fig trees for example. Eventually, they began to dye the bark fibre cloth to produce patterns on it, giving birth to the renowned tradition of vibrant colours and patterns in traditional clothing in almost every part of Africa.
Eventually by 2000 BC, people began to weave cloth instead of pounding down the bark fibres. Some wove linen, whereas others wove specific kinds of tall grass. Changes in rulers, access to foreigners and international trade all influenced a number of African countries’ cultures, and by association, their clothes. No matter where on the continent you travelled, however, one thing remained the same: traditional African clothing almost always came/comes in a variety of styles and vibrant colours and prints.
After colonialism it seemed most countries had a huge shift in clothes to become more like their western counterparts. It was not necessarily a fully bad thing as it taught us to be more ‘civilized’ but there are definitely some negatives in the situation, as we continued to progress and seek to identify ourselves with what or who we saw them to be we lost some of who we are. Yet there are still some countries which held on tight to their sense of style regardless of the direction that the rest of the world was moving.
Sudan and South Sudan
One such country would be Sudan. Sudan is a large African country with strong Islamic and Christian traditions. Religions and beliefs of local people have had a great influence on the national clothing of Sudan, meaning they weren’t about to change what they wore because it had a much deeper meaning. Climate conditions also affected their dress. Those are the reasons for Sudanese people to wear loose-fitting long attires which cover most of the body. These dresses and robes are made of light natural fabrics. Most Sudanese people also still to this day cover their heads: women with scarves and men with turbans. Headgears serve both for religious purposes and for protection from the sun. Western-style dresses are also used in Sudan, but they’re rarer than traditional ones.
Much like the dress of Sudan for much the same reasons, *cultural, religious, and climate* Somalia’s dress is an everyday affair. People of Somalia use their national costumes rather often. Unlike Europeans who take the traditional clothing out of the closet only for festivals and special occasions, Somalis use such garments in day-to-day life. Only in big cities people wear Western dress every day, but use traditional costumes for events and special occasions. As the climate in Somalia is hot, people cover most of the body from scorching sun and use natural materials to make clothing. They also wear loose garments (even men prefer skirt-like clothing) to prevent overheating.
Like mentioned earlier, not all European colonization influence was negative and that is show by the people of Botswana. Botswana is a country in Southern Africa that has rich and interesting clothing traditions. Many of them were formed under the influence of colonizers and missionaries who appeared in Botswana in 19-20th centuries. Today traditional Tswana outfit is a mix of Western-style or Victorian Era dresses with the pieces of clothing that are pure Tswana (for example, kaross – traditional blanket made from animal skins). Some costumes of ethnic minorities in Botswana also deserve special attention. We’re talking about the Herero dress.
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 will wear a Lamba in the event of a death or another occasion for prayers to the ancestors. This includes during visits to the hospital or doctor, where it is believed that good fortune with the ancestors will have a direct impact upon their lives. 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.
We come back home to our own people who have refused to be colonized in any form, sort, or way. You can’t help but admire their independence and choice to retain their own uniqueness and refuse cultural uniformity. The Maasai stands out wherever he is from physical appearance alone. Kenya advisor shares how Maasai women typically wear vast plate-like bead necklaces, and colourful wraps called kanga. The men are famous for wearing a red-checked shuka (Maasai blanket) and carry a distinctive ball-ended club. For Maasai, red clothing stands for power. Many Maasai wear simple sandals, sometimes soled with pieces of motorcycle tires. When males become ‘morans’ (warriors), around age 14, they traditionally dye their hair red with ochre and fat.
These are just a few of the hundreds of ethnicities in Africa who have managed to maintain their cultural dress. Or who, even though may have embraced modern western standards of dressing have been able to combine the look with pieces their grandparents wore before to produce a look that stands out.
We should realize as a people that cultural dress is not just about fashion, it is about a sense of pride, of belonging, of standing out and saying this is who I am, this is where I come from and the colours on my attire represent the colours of my mother land.
This is becoming more recognized, especially in the younger generation as Kenyans are discovering ways of combining the modern with the tribal; the new with the traditional. Such examples being jackets with kitenge hoodies, kitenge shoes, purses, and skirts. Sweaters with the shuka material for extra warmth and a few other things. Hopefully this generation will be more drawn to their cultural roots than away from them.
If you are interested in finding out what other countries’ national dress is check out national clothing and for more on the Kenyan Dress, you can view Kenya Advisor.
Shingai is an upcoming writer with a passion for words and expression through writing. She lived in Zimbabwe as a child and has traveled to over ten countries. She craves adventure and hopes to be an inspirational writer. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with a minor in Psychology at Daystar University.