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Tanzania: national dress, not on my life! Attempts to instil a sense of cultural identity in Tanzania through a national dress have hit the buffers. "In a country of 120 tribes and a wealth of dresses, is it logical to pick a foreign outfit as a national dress?" asks one Catholic priest. Herald Tagama reports from Dar es Salaam.

A recent endorsement of a colourful kitenge wraparound and headscarf as the national dress for Tanzanian women, and for men a suit similar to the collarless one worn by the former Chinese prime minister, Chou en-Lai, have not gone down well with the people.


Both outfits have the national flag sewn on the breast-side to symbolise Tanzania's national identity. Rose Valentine and Agnes Gabriel, designers of the new male and female attire respectively, were each awarded Tsh 1.5m in a ceremony whose guest of honour was Prime Minister Frederick Sumaye. But the authorities are finding it difficult to convince the people to accept the new national dress.

Kitenge was already a common dress at ceremonies and was seen as easy to adopt and promote. But it is proving to be a miscalculation. "I wear kitenge simply because I appear resplendent in it," says the businesswoman. Naomi Mwalugaja. "But that doesn't mean it should be the national dress."

The Chou En-Lai has also caused a degree of disquiet. "Why Chou En-Lai?" asked Catholic priest Telesphor Magobe. "In a country of 120 tribes and a wealth of dresses, is it logical to pick a foreign outfit as a national dress? That is unacceptable. And I, for one, will never ever put on such a dress. Leave it to the politicians."

His sentiments are shared by many people. Even the deputy managing editor of the government-owned newspaper, The Daily News, fumed in his column: "With that dress, count me out!" He argued that dresses such as the Nigerian agbada were national because some ethnic groups naturally wore them.

Some Tanzanian fashion designers resent the fact that "little research" was carried out on the new national dress. They think a more detailed research could have come up with a popular choice. "Why not go for the Maasai dress?" asked one. "For example, we have been seeing King Mswati [of Swaziland] clad in a lubega-type of dress with one of his shoulders bare, and that is typically Swazi." Others don't understand why Tanzanians couldn't adopt a typically indigenous, respectable and familiar dress.

Curiously, even government and ruling party high officials seem unexcited with the new outfits. President Benjamin Mkapa himself favours a Kaunda (a variant of the Chou en-Lai) when at home, but when travelling abroad or on official duty he prefers a three-piece Western suit. Except for John Malecela, the vice-chairman of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, who has been appearing in Chou en-Lai or other collarless shirts for decades, the rest of the male apparatchiks go for Western suits, preferably a three-piece, even under the hot African sun.


During the 1940s and 1950s, the founder of Tanzanian nationalism, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, favoured a white shirt over a pair of shorts, white stockings and white shoes. But as the level of nationalism grew in him, he regularly sported Ghana's kente, much as Kwame Nkrumah did. Many Tanganyikan nationalists emulated this.

However, in the 1960s, when relations between Tanzania and China grew, Nyerere adopted the Chou en-Lai. Later he would also wear the Kaunda suit, but he never warmed to Western-style suits, even when socialism collapsed. Yet his successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, loved the three-piece.

On Tanzanian streets, as in many parts of the world, young people are greatly influenced by the fashions and styles of the West. Short dresses are now so commonplace that some deeply Islamic individuals have become aggrieved.

In Zanzibar, Islamic fundamentalists calling themselves Simba wa Mungu (The Lions of God) have been reported to whip scantily dressed women. Aisha Ahmed, the chairperson of the Association of Muslim Women, laments: "It's a shame that Africans are copying Western culture wholesale to the detriment of their own. They are lost."
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Tagama, Herald
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6TANZ
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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