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African Clothing for Dummies – Part 2

Hey the tribe, hope your year has started on a good foot! As of me, classes have already started and I’m already fed up, but that’s life *sobbing*. But anyway, if you’re reading this, it must be because the topic has raised interest in you, and I’m very glad it did! Because indeed African clothing is not just one thing, but a bunch of them, as I specified in the introduction of the previous article on that topic. If you haven’t read it yet, you better do it asap, since it’s generally more interesting to read a book from the beginning, right? Do what’s the most logical thing to do, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you 🙂 *highly suggesting you to go read the first part* I’m almost insisting fam.

Anyway, in this article, I will introduce to you three other popular African attires:

  • Boubou
  • Umukenyero
  • Shuka

Boubou

The boubou is an African attire especially worn in the Western part of the continent. It’s basically a two-piece outfit for men, and one-piece for women, quite similar to the djellaba and the Arab tunic worn in North Africa and the Middle East, but more stylish if I may say so. Its name comes from the wolof mbubb, a widely spoken language in Senegal, but has various names since it has been adopted by many ethnic groups, such as babban riga (Hausa), agbada (Yoruba), gandora (Tuareg) and darra’a in (Maghrebi Arabic).

This magnificent African outfit was mostly worn by the nobility of different people in West Africa in a similar form, with different patterns of different meaning from one ethnic group to another, while the rest of the population would wear a tunic on the top of the body over a loin cloth or baggy pants. The Berber traders who arrived in the fifth century brought a cloth closer to the current boubou. The fusion of the latter and the boubou initially worn created the modern boubou we see nowadays in the vibrant West African streets and markets.

 

I personally like it for its bright color and the fancy fabric used to make them.  I never showed interest for this awesome piece of clothing during the few times I’d see people wearing it in Canada until my trip to Senegal two years ago during which I fell in love with it, and you’ll guess it, had two of them sewn to measure at Dakar’s HLM market. From that time, whenever I’m invited to a wedding, I bring it and always win the title of the star of the night.

Umukenyero

The umukenyero is another African attire very popular in the eastern part of Africa, precisely in Rwanda, Burundi, as well as in parts of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Also called mushanana or imvutano, it was formerly worn during day-to-day activities, but women have now contented themselves to wear them on important ceremonies, such as weddings, dowry, funerals and weekly church services. It also is the uniform of the female traditional dancers I always fall in love with, especially as they hold the sash’s corners in their arm movements. This magnificent African clothing consists in three parts: a long skirt wrapped around the hips and a bustier or tank top over a lightweight, transparent and colorful piece of fabric wrapped around one shoulder that recovers the skirt and the top.

The mushanana is an attire that adds so much elegance to the wearer that you’ll (almost) automatically fall in love with the latter and the garment as soon as you see her stepping in the room with an imvutano–I don’t know if it’s my Rwandese biased ass writing this, but that’s what happens to me everytime I’m in this kind of situation (sorry not sorry). So you, girl–yes you–already know what to wear to the next event your crush will be attending, or if your partner is taken, hide him as soon as you see a woman wearing it, because hmmmm…I’ll stop here oh.

Shuka

Who doesn’t know the Maasai, these redoubtable Nilotic people living in the savannas of Kenya and Tanzania, mostly known for, among others, their hunting skills and thoughtful war strategies? I don’t know for you, but whenever I hear about the Maasai people, I always think of them wearing their red robe and colorful jewelry worn around their neck, holding their arrow, jumping very high into the sky, ready to hunt the game of the week. And mind you, before my decision to write this article, I never minded knowing the name of this beautiful traditional attire I will introduce to you in the few next paragraphs: the shuka.

The shuka (cover in some Bantu languages) is, as you may see on the image above, a bright-colored fabric Maasai wrap around their svelte body. The predominant red color this cloth adopts symbolizes this warrior people’s culture, many among them believing that it scares off the lions from a great distance. It’s mostly accompanied by jewels, made of beads and metal wire, which identify the clan and social status they belong to. Men’s jewels consist of belts, necklaces, wrist and ankle bracelets, while women’s are composed of very colorful tens of bracelet and imposing plane bead-decorated collars of various patterns and colors. Here is the link of the highly informative and detailed article I took most of the above information from, hope you’ll learn a lot as I did.

Additional & interesting facts

  • A slightly different theory from the one given above claims that the boubou came from the Hausa nobility who brought it to the Songhai peoples in the twelveth and thirteenth centuries, and was later spread throughout West Africa. The migration of the Hausa people who would do long distance to trade and preach Islam during the 16th century in the region would be the reason why this beautiful African attire is so popular among the various ethnic groups of West Africa
  • Men also wear a variant of the mushanana, but with less colorful features. The main differences are the white shirt that replaces the tank top, and the skirt replaced by a sarong-like clothing. It’s mostly worn during dowry ceremonies called gusaba no gukwa (to ask and marry) in Kinyarwanda
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Groom and bestman👌🏿 imishanana by us

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  • The different colors we see in Maasai clothing and jewelry represent an important part of their culture. Blue represents the color of the sky, providing water in the form of rain, fundamental for the cattle. White represents the purity of milk, a source of energy and staple food. Red, the most important color, represents the blood and a shield against wild animals. In a more symbolic way, it represents the strength, courage and unity within the Maasai nation. Green represents the land providing crops for the cattle and the people. Yellow represents the sun, making life possible, and finally, orange represents hospitality, friendship and the generosity of the Maasai people

Conclusion

In this article, I presented three traditional African attires worn in the eastern part of Africa, more precisely in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as their characteristics, history and my personal link with them, and finished with a few facts I found interesting about each of them. In an upcoming article, I will introduce to you in a similar way three other traditional African clothes typically found in another culturally-rich African region: the Horn of Africa.

Just like the first article I wrote on African clothing, I learned a lot about those attires and noticed some differences with the Western/American clothing style. For example, I noticed the clothes do not differ a lot between the genders, a characteristic I assumed to be due to their will to cope with the challenging weather in the most efficient or least bothering way. What about you, did you fall on some facts you never knew about while going through this article? Are there other interesting information you found in this article you’d wish to point out and would be willing to share with the AWE community? If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. See you on the other side!

Steve Rutikara

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