The Futility in Seeking Out a National Dress (and why we should embrace it).

The pride of any country is their national dress; each thread of the fabric holds the society together and is the crowning glory of the citizens. However, in her almost 58 years of self-rule, Kenya hasn’t come up with one unifying attire for all her children.

The benefits of having a national dress do exist, like celebrating the culture and heritage of a country and revelling in the shared commonality that it offers.

In 2004, in collaboration with Sunlight (Unilever), the Government invested millions in developing a national dress1. Still, when the attire was launched in September of that year, it didn’t pick up and faded soon after that. The government also mandated civil servants to wear Kenyan made attire every Friday and public holidays since October 17th 2019, and I’m not sure if the culture was taken up. Why has it been so hard to adopt?

One reason might be the fact that the processes so far don’t include public participation. Joy Mboya, the executive director of the GoDown arts centre who worked with the government and Unilever during the 2004 attempt, explained that the parties involved did some secondary research but they didn’t actually ask people what they wanted.2 It can be challenging to put out a concept to the public when their opinion wasn’t sought out initially, especially when it comes to clothes and culture. If the society at large doesn’t have a say, then what are these decisions even being based on?

Other East African countries such as Uganda also do not have one general national dress, but in areas in Central Uganda, there are specific traditional garments such as the gomesi, a widely accepted type of formal attire.  Different communities and regions in the country have their traditional garments, so there isn’t quite an overall national dress, but variations of common pieces of clothing definitely exist. 

Another reason for the lack of national dress is that in a country with over 45 official tribes; most already have their cultural wear. So putting together one general garment while including every single culture in Kenya would be close to impossible. Using national colours is an option, but those were used in the government/Unilever attempt, and it still didn’t work out. 

The lasting effects of colonialism add another element to this discussion.  During the scramble and partition of Africa, there was no consideration for boundaries between tribes, and European countries set up artificial boundaries based on their agreements and to their benefit. So different tribes that were separate states were smooshed together which would explain why most African countries including Kenya don’t have a national dress.  The whole premise of our current border system is based on colonial theft, so finding one national dress to encapsulate was used to be separate, independent territories would be challenging to say the least. Another element to this argument is the fact that the industrial and cultural pipeline directing the flow of media to centre Western representation in African media has framed Western clothing as not only the norm but in some cases a mark of social status. Many traditional garments have slipped through the cracks as a result. 

Traditional attire in Kenya tends to be worn during special events like weddings, initiations, holidays and days of worship. They aren’t preferred for everyday wear because they are usually pricier and custom-made and set aside for these special occasions; think along the lines of nguo za Krismasi (Christmas clothes).

Lastly, as Kenyans, we are just adamant. Let’s face it; it’s very difficult for us to take up something new and leave our old ways. We are a people set in our ways, and this kichwa ngumuness just makes us who we are, our sauce if you ask me.

With all these intricacies, will a national dress be invented? Who knows? Maybe in time Kenyans will come together and find an everyday garment, and perhaps they won’t, but it shouldn’t matter that much. Also, as a people, we already incorporate traditional garments in more modern styles such as leso tote bags and kikoi shorts. 

In the words of Joy Mboya, maybe a national attire will spring forth when the citizens are ready, and “it’s not a shortcoming to lack one”.3

Footnotes
  1. ArtMattersInfo, “Kenya’s Sh50 Million National Dress Is a Mirage,” ArtMatters.Info, September 22, 2008, http://artmatters.info/2008/09/kenyas-sh50-million-national-dress-mirage-2/.
  2. Joy Mboya, “JOY MBOYA – the Quest for the Kenya National Dress | the Elephant,” The Elephant, June 6, 2019, https://www.theelephant.info/culture/2019/06/06/the-quest-for-the-kenya-national-dress/.
  3. Joy Mboya, “JOY MBOYA – the Quest for the Kenya National Dress | the Elephant,” The Elephant, June 6, 2019, https://www.theelephant.info/culture/2019/06/06/the-quest-for-the-kenya-national-dress/.