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Nation's Legislators Ask, Do Clothes Make the Kenyan?

Dispute mirrors wider debates about the role of African and European traditions in politics.

June 04, 2003|Gwendolyn Driscoll | Special to The Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — This country's struggle to emerge from decades of authoritarian rule and economic decline might be best summed up today in a word: pajamas.

A few weeks ago, a Kenyan legislator came to the chambers of the nation's parliament dressed in the traditional cap and flowing agbada robes of West Africa. He was promptly dressed down, so to speak, for his "informal attire" by the parliament's speaker, Francis ole Kaparo, himself the wearer of a costume not typically found in the tropics of East Africa: the heavy black robes and white wig of the British parliamentary system.

"He told me I was wearing pajamas," the parliamentarian, Koigi wa Wamwere, said. "He believes to be smart is to wear a suit."

The dispute over dress is symbolic of Kenya's struggle to define a more representative African identity, and it mirrors wider debates across the continent about the role of African and European traditions in modern politics.

Wamwere's fashion statement was applauded by Kenya's fledgling clothing design industry, eager to replace the staid Western suits and dresses typically worn across the country. As politicians and legal experts gather in Nairobi, the capital, this month to overhaul the country's constitution, some see the choice between an oxford shirt and an agbada robe not just as a change of clothes, but as a larger reflection of Kenya's changing political culture.

"If we're going to give our people a sense of pride, a sense of self-respect and identity, we need to reclaim our culture," said Wangari Mathai, junior environment minister. "People who wear African dress are trying to look for some identity. They're trying to define themselves." Mathai sits on a committee entrusted with finding ways to inject African traditions into the Kenyan Constitution, a document considered by many to reflect, like Kaparo's wig and gown, the influences of the West.

Kenya's parliamentary system closely mirrors the British system, some say to its detriment. The country's first constitution was drafted in 1963 in London with the help of British technocrats. Critics say its legal framework encouraged authoritarianism by giving too much power to the president, enabling Kenya's two independence leaders, former Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, to maintain their grip on power.

"There was an attachment to the formalities of the colonial era," said Philip Knight, a Canadian legal expert working as a consultant to Kenya's constitutional review process. "You even see it in the adoption of Western dress."

British influence on Kenyan life is evident in the official language (English), beverage of choice (tea), and even in the British-style red phone booths and black taxicabs in the capital. In Kenya's wood-paneled courts and parliament, legislators and bewigged judges are referred to with honorifics such as "My Lord," and the assembly speaker wields an elaborate golden mace as a symbol of his authority, another tradition imported directly from Britain.

Challengers of tradition often face ridicule from their peers or even ejection from the chamber.

Wamwere said he was initially blocked from entering parliament by a security officer shocked by his African garb. Upon entry, he was spotted by former Foreign Minister Marsden Madoka, now an opposition member, who reported the fashion faux pas to the speaker.

The official dress code is a "shirt, coat and tie -- something that is accepted in official places," said Kaparo, a member of the famously traditional Masai ethnic group, noted for its striking red robes and beaded necklaces. Kaparo said he would not wear Masai dress in parliament and defended Western clothing as the inevitable price of joining the modern world.

"Let's be honest. We have been colonized economically, socially and mentally," he said. "Even [the idea of] a parliament itself is Western."

Unlike clothing in most of West Africa, attire in Kenya is generally conservative. In early May, a woman wearing a miniskirt was stripped naked by a mob in Nairobi as punishment for what they called her "provocative" dress.

Elsewhere on the continent, controversy erupted over the length of women's skirts in the East Africa Legislative Assembly, a Ghanaian minister was ejected from parliament for wearing a short-sleeved shirt, Ugandan local leaders voted to discard their traditional robes in favor of trousers, and controversy swirled in Swaziland over whether women's traditionally bare breasts should be covered.

Ojay Hakim, a prominent fashion designer, and other colleagues responded to the Wamwere incident with a campaign to encourage politicians to wear African-style clothing. "It shows the extent of influence that society has from the Western dress code when traditional [African] dress is regarded as something that should not be worn outside the house," Hakim said.

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