Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Monday, April 12, 2010

Letter from Butiama: The latest fashions

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011.

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Last Sunday* I listened to a sermon in which the priest talked about the tendency among many today of imitating 'foreign customs', particularly fashion. Among the imported fashion styles he mentioned were clean-shaven heads, tight trousers, and straightened hair.

He grew up where people shaved their heads to mourn the death of a close relative. He talked of seeing a younger sister, during a recent visit to his parents' home, dressed in tight-fitting trousers and amazed she did not find that 'inappropriate'. He noticed that among the congregation some had hairstyles that are different from the African weaved hairstyles he saw while growing up.

While it is true that many Tanzanians still shave their heads when mourning, there is a growing number of Tanzanians to whom a clean-shaven head is a fashion statement. The priest said and I agree that we spend too much time copying what others do instead of promoting what we have. We have a treasure of cultural diversity that we do not value.

And I understand his frustration about some of these styles. I recently knocked on my nephew's bedroom door, who is in his early twenties, and when he opened the door I had a feeling he had rushed to open the door while still in the process of putting on his clothes. He was bare-chested and his trousers seemed to be over sized, loosely held by a belt, and exposing a significant part of his coloured underwear.

I felt like asking whether there was a problem with his belt, but decided it was better to stick to the original purpose of talking to him. It was apparent he was not at all bothered by his underwear sticking out of his trousers. I concluded later his manner of dressing made sense only in the context of style because I recall seeing a similar expose' by a young man in Mwanza.

It is awkward fashion. I wouldn't mind if they were exposing some sleek looking underwear because from the little I have seen the 'internal' fashion accessories leave a lot to be desired. It makes one wonder that while some people are extremely weary of hanging their washed underwear in full view of passersby, there are some who are willing to parade their unlaundered ones in town.

Fashion is normally the obsession of the young, and I was reminded that I too passed through that age. Today, young men braid their hair openly. I recall a period when young men braided their hair at night, with assistance from their sisters, and undid the plaits in the mornings to get the 'Afro' look. Then, as today, young people copied the hairstyles of African Americans who, in the past, were reaffirming their African roots through style and fashion.

It is an irony that is replaying itself today. It is quite possible that the young men with plaited hair we see today want to imitate David Beckham's hairstyle. It is also quite possible that Beckham picked his style from Nigerian footballer Nwankwo Kanu.

Many will say this is a phenomenon that most young people will outgrow. I agree. As a teenager I was one of those who plaited his hair at night so that I could wake up with the greatest 'Afro' the next day. Then, as today, young people still search outside for cultural values that are homegrown.

*18th July 2005

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