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The ‘shuka’ makes no sense to mzungu

By Stephen Derwent Partington | Tuesday, Apr 18th 2017 at 07:31

The expatriate hails from a very cold country, where a single step outside from the heated house would, for a Kenyan, result in instant hypothermia and death. And yet, the expatriate loved the cold: its pinching of the skin; its withering of the extremities.

But when the cold season comes to Kenya – and it is about to arrive – the average Kenyan sinks into a state similar to hibernation. During this time, the Kenyan stays indoors, and would rather die of carbon monoxide poisoning from her jiko in the TV room than NOT have hot coals at her feet.

As the clouds gather outside and the rains falls, causing the temperatures to plummet, the Kenyan-at-home makes a hot mug of broth, dons an outdoors hat on the sofa, puts on thick socks and slippers, and wraps herself in a shuka. Or two shukas. Or three.

In Kenya, the over-garment of choice is the shuka, that probably European-made rectangle of fabric that is brightly striped or red-checked into pseudo-Maasai squares. And it’s probably a sensible choice.

The jumper, sweater or coat isn’t needed very often, as the periods when Kenyan is cold are few and short, and consequently could go out of fashion from season to season, costing money for the fashion-conscious Kenyan – but the classic shuka, well, is ‘timeless’.

I once met a woman from Ukambani who at age 94 was buried in the same shuka she was swaddled in at birth.

Okay, that bit’s not true.

But if Kenyan women wear a shuka, what do the men wear? Well, some Kenyan men consider the shuka to be a mere ‘blanket’ and, therefore, unisex.

Consequently, you’ll occasionally see a man sitting outdoors or indoors, his hands wrapped around a warm tea or beer while a shuka is wrapped around his shoulders.

But Kenyans are people who like to create fixed borders and boundaries, especially when it comes to clothing. Kenya, after all, is a place where men, especially men, will tell you as an expatriate (even while you’re wearing short trousers) that shorts are for women or boys, not men, for example.

Consequently, the concept of ‘unisex’ is treated with some suspicion, and some men who wear shukas are, presumably, stoned in the street or warmed up, not with clothing, but with burning tyres around their necks.

Whatever a Kenyan man wears, though, the fact is that he’ll never venture outside on a cold day in the way an expatriate does, in nothing but thin trousers (or, yes, shorts) and a teeshirt.

You see, for the expatriate, every day in Kenya is MOMBASA, and he never really feels cold at all. Indeed, when the chilly season comes, you’ll see him strolling down the city streets, rain pummelling his stupid face as he uses only his long nose as an umbrella.

Give the expatriate a shuka at such a time, and he’d not know what to do with it: dry himself down or blow that long nose, presumably. Either way, pity him.

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