Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – Clothing (& competition winner)


Having just spent a few days with the beautiful (that is the right word I think, although they are warriors) Masai in Kenya I was inspired to comment in this blog on clothing here in Tanzania.

Whilst the Masai clothing is steeped in tradition and practicality, clothing across the country is a comedic, heart-breaking, wild mass of colour and influence and no one ever seems to bat an eyelid about any of it!

Let me start with the Masai, since I have mentioned them already. There are several outfits a Masai might wear depending on their gender and stages in life so I won’t go into all of it, but I can’t possibly write about clothing in Tanzania without mentioning the brilliant shoes they wear made of used tyre treads, and the tartan or checked ‘shuka’ or blanket that the male warriors wear. These are always bright and generally red or purple. The main outfit consists of two cotton sarong like garments in the traditional colours and patterns each tied like a one-shouldered dress but on opposite shoulders, forming a short cover-all. For warmth, should they need it, they then tie a thicker blanket around their shoulders. Add to this ankle wrist and neck beads and you might imagine this would make them look effeminate – far from it! Take a look at my photos in yesterday’s post for a better visual.

The red blankets stand out dramatically against the soft browns and yellows of the plains and the cattle and their huts and manyattas and it is rumoured that animals have learned to fear that colour so it is a form of protection in itself. It is certainly striking and lends a certain majesty to these tall and imposing figures. So much so that many who are not Masai choose to dress in outfits like them.

Of course there are also their weapons and tools which are fascinating, but a subject for another day since I want to talk about more aspects of clothing here today.

You might drive down any street in the centre of Mwanza for example, and all in the same minute you would see women in kangas, men in shiny silk shirts and chinos, women in bridesmaids dresses, men in muslim galabaya (those very cool looking white dresses) and flat topped circular hats, women in arabaya (like a black burka), men in sports shirts for a team they may never have heard of and women in heels and office wear. It is an incredible mish mash of crazy fashion and abject poverty.

The kanga, which I just mentioned, is a length of fabric printed generally in wild patterns and bright colour (though a popular modern twist includes one with Barak Obama’s face at the centre!). The patters forms to two halves and the piece is cut in half. One part to be worn wrapped around a woman’s waist and the other takes on multiple uses – it may be tied in such a way as to provide padding for heavy goods being carried on the head, or simply as elaborate African fashion head wear, to support a baby on a mother’s back, to tie up everything that has been bought at market or as a shawl. A kanga tied over a pink shiny 1980’s bridesmaids dress is not an unusual sight.

The versatile material is also frequently sewn to create beautiful matching skirts and tops or children’s clothes, bags, cushions – you name it – by the fantastic fundis we have around here (see previous blog). Actually, that’s a whole other aspect of clothing in Africa – the fact that you can design whatever your imagination can handle and have it made in just a day or two. Love it.

Of course it’s easy for me though. For me the equivalent of two or three pounds buys me a kanga, and the same again will have it turned into an outfit – that’s cheap right? Well, not when that’s a week’s wages and you have several children to feed. One of the things that slowly dawns on you when you live here is that children tend to wear school uniform at all hours of the day and night. It’s when you see a group of them on a Sunday, still in uniform, that you realise they probably don’t have anything else to wear.

Education here is ‘free’ but to attend school you need a uniform, books and usually you must contribute to school maintenance, so once a family has forked out for a uniform, play clothes are a luxury for some.

Whilst we’re on the subject of children, I will never get over the sweat-inducing sight of little babies here. They are always swaddled to within an inch of their life in thick knitted hats, winter jackets or wooly blankets. I think it’s fear of the many illnesses babies can die of and a lack of education in child care but it always makes me want to set them free! To be fair infant mortality is high here and it must be a terrifying time, particularly if you have nothing and can’t afford hospital trips or any kind of support.

One of the reasons behind all the mis-matched madness is the diverse culture here – so many tribes, influences from over-seas and religions inevitably leads to all sorts of different clothing – but the other is ‘mutumba’.

Mutumba is the name given to the second hand stalls and all their goods. It’s like OXFAM gone mad. It’s a huge part of life here in East Africa and you can find just about anything there. Amongst these stalls are throwbacks from the past fifty years in every size and colour imaginable. Much of it arrives through charities and becomes a person’s livelihood. In fact, two clever Kenyans I know have built a business out of finding the designer labels in amongst everyone else’s stalls and cleaning them and selling them back to the foreigners! Anyway, what I’m saying is it’s a treasure trove of costumes for plays and even the occasional fantastic find for yourself, but does result in quite a wild array of outfits and combinations.

They also stock shoes. Of course they are second hand and only come in the size they are, no options. One little Tanzanian boy I know went to stay with some of his family in the UK for a bit and when he returned his mum asked him if he enjoyed himself. “Yes” he said, “and you won’t believe it, they have shops where you can find a shoe you like and then just order it in any size. They have a big room in the back and they all come in boxes!”

If variety is the spice of life then things are certainly hot when it comes to fashion in Africa!

Actually, before I sign off I should add that, at the other end of the scale, there is in fact a thriving fashion industry in East Africa as events like Zanzibar Fashion Week clearly illustrate. I was at a fantastic fashion show in Kenya just last week, photographing some incredible outfits. And I remember my 6th Form students were always seriously stylish. It’s not that fashion doesn’t exist here, it’s more that not everyone can afford to think about and everyone accepts that – so you are entirely free to wear whatever you want. Well, as long as you don’t reveal thighs or cleavage, they’re considered a bit slutty round here!

Any comments are, as always, very welcome. I mentioned some time ago a guy wearing a pink t-shirt that proclaimed ‘I can’t even think straight, let alone be straight!’ – a slogan he clearly did not understand. Perhaps you’ve seen some other good ones? If so let me know.

One friend did tell me recently about a great one that read ‘I give up… Perhaps the Hokey Cokey really it is what it’s all about.’

AND THE WINNER IS… You may remember that about a month ago I posted a competition. Well I had some fantastic entries and you guys really helped with your amazing inventions for 2054. But the winner has to be my fantastic friend Gary Patterson, who came up with a whole series of brilliant ideas and will get at least one featured in the novel – with a thank you in the acknowledgements section. (Please do check out his blog too if you have time as he’s doing one hell of a cycling trip to raise money for charity: http://www.cycle4africa.wordpress.com). Anne Harkonen is a close runner up and will also receive acknowledgement for her excellent ideas. Thanks everyone!

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3 responses

  1. michael

    As ever -another interesting read – thanks Melissa.

    About tshirt slogans, there are so many in this part of the world.

    I once saw an infant in South Africa dressed in a black tshirt written: 333- am only half evil! Then there was this guy at a market in Kenya wearing a faded tshirt saying: I’ve got an inferiority complex, but not a very good one! Really funny.

    I also saw a kid in a white tshirt with a spelling icon that said: N is for narcotics. I really laughed. But the most hilarious one was a colleague in Botswana who wore a tshirt to school during a civlian day emblazoned: Injection is nice, but I’d rather be blown. When I laughed out loud, the brother asked me what was so funny!!! I just told him ‘never mind’.

    Thanks melissa, keep writing.

    April 12, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    • Absolutely brilliant! Just what I was looking for from reader contributions. Thanks for reading 🙂

      April 13, 2012 at 9:42 am

  2. Hello, I am curating an exhibition of khanga in London and was wondering if you would allow an image of the baby on the back of the bike, wrapped in a khanga to feature in the exhibition?

    November 11, 2015 at 7:45 pm

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