The Politics of African “Moral” Dress


Early this year the Ugandan parliament passed what they called an Anti-pornography bill which was soon after enacted into law. The legislation was envisaged to curb the perceived decaying moral standards of the conservative East African Nation. The law criminalizes “….. the showing of sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks or sexual genitalia.” Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister and the main figure behind the Bill, clarified : “Any attire which exposes intimate parts of the human body, especially areas that are of erotic function, are outlawed. Anything above the knee is outlawed. If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her.” Since the law was passed a number women wearing mini skirts have been physically attacked and assaulted in the streets of the capital, Kampala by self appointed moral vigilantes. Here in Kenya and in South Africa women being assaulted and stripped in public has become a frighteningly far too common an occurrence. According to proponents of the Ugandan law and the so-called moral vigilantes, – all men, it is meant to protect our African moral values from decadent western influence. This is a bit strange as even a cursory glance at African traditional dress and the dressing mode of some of the tribes still untouched by western values even today reveals a wonderful celebration of the human body and a matter of fact acceptance of nakedness. All over Africa, men and women in traditional communities like the Karamajong in Uganda, the Samburu and Turkana, in Kenya, the Nuba of Southern Sudan, and many others continue to dress appropriately for the climate without hullabaloo about the morality of their dress. In fact, it was the Westerner that was shocked and embarrassed on his first contact with the Africans. Elspheth Huxley one of the chroniclers of this contact recorded one such encounter with the Kikuyu. She noted how a group of men and women settlers were embarrassed in front of young Kikuyu men, who “smelt powerfully and richly, though not unpleasantly of rancid fat and red earth, wore short leather cloaks which failed to hide their genitals … the girls with nothing on but very small triangles of leather and string of beads, and whose breasts were still half-formed and therefore firm and in the right position” Another of the early chroniclers writing of “the long African night” before the Dawn, and how the eternal savage “unchanged, undeveloped, uncivilized with his clothing (if any) of skins almost unchanged during countless generations was in a perpetual state of stagnation.” and according to another missionary, “As for clothing, satisfied as Mother Nature brought them into the wild, if they threw anything on their bodies, it was for ornament, not for protection.” It was the feeling of the Christian missionaries that the African was immoral, and that he needed to be lifted from this “natural depravity” through Christianization and the instilment of sound moral values. The new mode of dressing introduced by the missionaries was therefore meant to save these decadent pagans and fashion men and women from this raw savage as one Raoul Allier wrote “turning all these aborigines into true men, fully developed and capable of progress.” Progress of cause in pornography, rape, and eroticization of the mind and body. It is therefore obvious that the so-called African values that are preached today and presented as authentically African are nothing more than missionary standards. When someone says, “such and such a dress is un-African”, what he really means is that such a dress is un-missionary or is pushing him/her towards eroticism and away from Soul awareness. The thin line between erotic susceptibility of the mzungu and soulful celebration of nudity by true Africans must be understood. Such laws as the Ugandan Anti-pornography law are a sick joke played on the true African who would like to emancipate himself from erotic susceptibility and from the stifling three piece suits and tuxedos. I suppose the Ugandan people should be thankful of their post-independent government that is trying to protect them from falling back and returning to “natural depravity” But seriously, is the shielding and protection from nudity the panacea for a moral society? It may come as a surprise to the Ugandan lawmakers in their stiffling and extremely ugly three piece suits that young men in traditional African societies like Huxley was recording and existing in many parts of Africa today did not and do not walk around in a perpetual daze of erotic excitement. On the contrary, the level of control was excellent and rape was unheard of. There was no such thing as unwanted pregnancy or abortion and neither were babies raped as is reported in today’s African society. A more open discussion of the human body where it is brought back into social consciousness, into the public realm may do more than so-called sex education where the discussions of the body are more often than not sexualized and sex is seen as something dirty and to be hidden. I have in mind such discussions as public art where the body is celebrated like Michelangelo did. In actual fact, some of his most wonderful explorations of the naked human body are to be found in the Sistine Chapel within the Vatican, the very Chapel where the Pope is selected. Or are Africans now more Catholic than the Pope? Silly fellows!! It is amazing that we do not appreciate public nude art enough to fill our cities with statues and murals of nudes. This is one way that youth today may begin to get comfortable with nudity from an early age. Once the mystery is removed the body shall no longer be a mysterious object existing in the dark colonized pornographic mind of the African but shall be seen as Michelangelo saw it – a reflection of the Divine. Below are a few images from Michelangelo and traditional Africa. Such an intoxicating wonderful joyfulness cannot be condemned as primitive or erotic.

Some of the 16 Wives and Children of Wambugu wa Mathangani near Gikondi Nyeri - 1909 Source: Muriuki and Sobania 2007

Some of the 16 wives and children of Wambugu wa Mathangani near Gikondi Nyeri – 1909
Source: Muriuki and Sobania 2007

A Kikuyu Couple  outside their homestead - 1920 Source: E-bay

A Kikuyu couple outside their homestead – 1920
Source: E-bay

Kikuyu Girl with upper garment - nguo ya ngoro - exposing right breast

Kikuyu girl with upper garment - nguo ya ngoro – exposing right breast

Kikuyu girl with traditional leather skirt, muthuru. The upper garment could be removed when too hot or while working.

Kikuyu girl with traditional leather skirt, muthuru. The upper garment could be removed when too hot or while working.

Dinka men, Southern Sudan. Source: Beckwith & Fisher 1999

Dinka men, Southern Sudan.
Source: Beckwith & Fisher 1999

Dinka Children, Source: Beckwith & Fisher 1999

Dinka Children,
Source: Beckwith & Fisher 1999

Samburu Girl  Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Samburu Girl
Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Samburu Girl: Eve before the arrival of the snake Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Samburu Girl: Eve before the arrival of the snake
Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

maasai worrior viewing the Great Rift Valley on a rock on the escarpment. Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Maasai young man, Moran viewing the Great Rift Valley floor from a rock on the escarpment.
Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Maasai worriors  Source: postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Maasai warriors
Source: postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Maasai Worriors Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Maasai young men, Morans
Source: Postcard, Westland Sundries, Nairobi

Swazi Girl during the Reed Dance Source: Beckwith & Fisher, 1999

Swazi Girl during the Reed Dance. Notice the crucifix
Source: Beckwith & Fisher, 1999

Reed Dance, Swaziland Source: Beckwith & Fisher, 1999

Reed Dance, Swaziland
Source: Beckwith & Fisher, 1999

Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence)

Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)

The Last Judgement, Michelangelo 1536 - 1541, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The Last Judgement, Michelangelo 1536 – 1541, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City