African Clothing For Dummies – Part 3

Hey the tribe, welcome (back) to my blog, hope y’all are having an amazing one! Happy new month by the way, we made it to the second month of the year 2019, hope you stuck to your resolutions if you took any ( as for me, although not easy for me but possible, I’m trying keeping in mind that discipline is the key). Who says February also says Black History Month and I’m super excited because it’s gonna be an exciting month for you, my readers, during which I will try to post as much content as possible!! Indeed, here in Ottawa, we will be having several events organized by the Black Canadian communities and I’m 1500% convinced they will be resourceful, enriching, and above all LIT, and I can’t wait to share my experiences with you guys!

That being said, let’s get back to the present time on this third article of my series on African traditional attires, where three particular ethnic groups from the Southern African region will be shouted out at: the Xhosa, Tswana, and Herero. The Southern African region has a particular history, being one of the last regions of the continent to get their independence from the European invaders, most of its countries having gained their independence not earlier than the 1970s, unlike other African countries which mostly gained their “independence” in the 1950s and 1960s. This particular fact may seem irrelevant at first, but when you realize how many of their ethnic groups’ cultures changed, it makes more sense. For example, traditional clothing experienced an important change during the European colonization, and those modified dress codes have now become part of some ethnic groups’ traditions.


For those who may not know who the Xhosa are, and even more so what they wear, lemme do, if you may, a quick history/anthropology class here. The Xhosa is an ethnic group located in South Africa, the country’s second largest ethnic group after the Zulu. They speak a language I admire so much, of the same name as their ethnic group, which basically consists, among others, of « click » sounds they make with their palate, tongue, and teeth. Another fun fact : Nelson Mandela, our beloved revolutionary man, was Xhosa.

The Xhosa women’s clothing consists of a colorful braided turban (iqhiya), a beaded top (vulwakabini), a bottom (ifulu) and another piece worn around the waist (uxakatha), mostly all beaded. Indeed, beads have an important place in the Xhosa culture, as they serve to honor and worship their ancestors. Xhosa women, as well as men, wear them around their head, neck, breast arms, wrists, ankles, and so on to which they gave different names. For example, an arm bracelet is called imitsheke, and an ankle bracelet, an intsimbi. Alike the Maasai tribe I talked about in a previous article, women dress depending on their life status. For example, newly married women don’t wear the same headdress as the ones who gave birth to a first child.

You will notice without much surprise that the Xhosa men don’t dress the same as their countrywomen. Traditionally being either a warrior, a hunter or a cattle-herder, animal skin is a very important piece of clothing, even though it changed in the past decades, leaving room for the fabric and other Western-type clothes. Their traditional attire in the daily life would consist of a coat or a blanket (ingcawa), worn with sandals. In special occasions, it would consist of embroidered skirts worn with a rectangular cloth over the shoulders or a tunic and strands of beaded necklaces.


The ohorokova, also known as the Herero dress, is a long and heavy Victorian-style dress brought by the German missionaries in the 19th century, and imposed to the Herero tribe that lives between Namibia and Botswana, to replace the traditional semi-naked dress they judged as unacceptable. To make the ohorokova more impressive, petticoats are added behind the fabric to make it seem more voluminous. To avoid looking too big, fewer petticoats are used as ladies get larger and older. The Herero dress is worn every day by married and older women, while unmarried and young women prefer to wear it on special occasions. An important feature to the ohorokova is the otjikalva, this long and wide headdress wound around the head and formed into long points that represent cow horns. Indeed, cows are very respected in the Herero culture.

The story behind the ohorokova, as you may have guessed earlier is very sad, started at the end of the 19th century when German arrived in modern Namibia to colonize the region they will call German South West Africa. A few years later, in 1904, the revolt led by the Herero tribe chief against the colonizers will serve as a trigger to the Herero wars during which the Herero, as well as other tribes on the territory, will be exterminated, forced into the desert, sent to concentration camps and labor camps, and/or serve as sexual slaves. Around 80% of the Herero will die during that genocide that lasted for 4 years. It’s around 1920, after World War I when Germany lost all their colonies that the Herero people started dressing up like their oppressors (in other words, chose to be petty :P), using the ohorokova to remember where they came from and express their freedom from their former tormentors. Herero women now consider the ohorokova as part of their culture.


The Tswana are another ethnic group in the Southern African region, living in three of its countries (Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana). Botswana, one of Africa’s richest countries, is named after the Tswana who represent (%?) of the country’s population. I first got in touch with the Tswana people through a video(add link) that circulated on one of the group chats I’m in, showing the Tswana’s traditional dance. Apart from their amazing footwork and dance steps synchronization, the main thing that captivated me in that video is their traditional attire. Alike the majority of African ethnic groups, the Tswana traditional clothing has become more symbolical than their casual dress code, worn more in special occasions.

First of all, the Tswana clothing was made of animal skin and local animals’ fur decorated with lots of ornaments such as copper wire, leather and animal teeth, and differed depending on your gender, age, social class, and status. For example, the Tswana men wore the tshega made out of the loin-skin bottom, the kaross, a blanket covering the upper part of the body, a skin cap, as well as sandals. If you were a warrior, you would also wear a belt of tails around the waist. Tswana women would, in turn, wear the khiba and the mosese, that stood respectively for an apron and a skirt, and alike men, the kaross.

Similarly, the Tswana children’s clothing wasn’t the same whether the child was a boy or a girl. Thus, the former would wear a small flap of skin in front leaving the behind of his body exposed, when the latter would wear a fringe of strings made out of skin or bast. The animal skin used depended on your social class. When you were part of a poorer social class, you had fewer pieces of clothing made from only one animal: the antelope. However, as you grew richer, your clothes were made out of 15 to 18 animal furs sewn together, such as the wild cat and the jackal. Along with their well-thought clothing style, a mix of ocher and animal fat was used to protect the clothes from the hot sun and the rough winds, an ingenious way to couple with the climate they were likely to face all year long.


In this article, I presented three traditional African attires worn in the southern part of Africa, more precisely in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, as well as their characteristics, history and my personal link with them. I could’ve also talked about other African traditional attires originally from that region, such as the Ndebele’s and the Zulu’s, but knowing me, this article would’ve never ended. Don’t worry though, this is for a future article, I promise. What about you, did you learn something from this article? If so, what links did you make with the information you found? Share with the AWE community your thoughts or any related question, and I will be glad to answer you!

The more research I do, the more I realize how diverse Africa and its cultures are, and how it would take forever to explore everything they have to offer. Honestly, I didn’t expect that much from my beloved continent (I had an idea of how wide I could talk about Africa, but THIS… I mean we have the whole package: rich history, traditions, talents, inventions, personalities, arts, dance, food, YOU.NAME.IT!! I don’t know for you guys but it increasingly excites me to learn more about my culture, pushing me to teach my brothers and sisters about the richness of Africa. In an upcoming article, I will introduce you three other traditional African clothes typically found in another culturally-rich African region: the Horn of Africa. See you on the other side!


Celebrating our heritage: Traditional Xhosa dress. https://www.vukuzenzele.gov.za/celebrating-our-heritage-traditional-xhosa-dress

Xhosa Clothing. http://www.afropedea.org/xhosa-clothing

Famous Truth about the Xhosa Tribe, Origin, Traditional Attire, Culture, Language, Food. https://buzzsouthafrica.com/xhosa-tribe-culture-and-language/

An Introduction To South African Traditional Dress. https://theculturetrip.com/africa/south-africa/articles/an-introduction-to-south-african-traditional-dress/

The African tribe which still wears Victorian clothes. https://www.zmescience.com/other/offbeat-other/herero-victorian-fashion/

Herero dresses—The bigger, the better. http://www.travelnewsnamibia.com/news/herero-dresses-bigger-better/

Traditional clothing of Botswana. Modest European dress combined with kaross or woven blanket. http://nationalclothing.org/africa/40-botswana/56-traditional-clothing-of-botswana-modest-european-dress-combined-with-kaross-or-woven-blanket.html

Picture of Herero woman taken on https://www.istockphoto.com/ca/photos/herero?mediatype=photography&phrase=herero&sort=best

Steve Rutikara

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