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How Kenyans dress like colonialists

By Stephen Derwent Partington | Thursday, Sep 18th 2014 at 22:20

The expatriate is a scruffy dresser, given to wearing khaki-coloured, safari-type clothing, even when at work in the office, especially when that office is outside Nairobi.

Why, he will reason, should I wear a suit and tie in such a hot country, in a rural area?

This decision, while seeming to disrespect the Kenyan workplace, is based on solid British cultural principles. Back home in his England, the expat had inherited centuries of hostility over town-and-country divides.

The town is a place of blue-black suits worn by folks who sip cold lager and steal people’s money. The countryside is a place of beige, green and brown clothing, ideally crumpled, worn by relaxed types who drink warm bitter beer and like communing with trees.

Similarly, the expatriate feels extraordinarily guilty over colonialism, and believes that it was terribly cruel for the white man to oblige the African to wear a three-piece suit with stupid necktie on the Equator.

For many expatriates, especially those from the English countryside, this sartorial imposition is colonialism’s greatest crime. So, the expatriate concludes that if he sets the example of not wearing a suit, Kenyans will follow, er, suit.

He forgets that this form of ‘example-setting’ the other way is just as colonialist, just as patronising. You can’t expect consistency from the national of a country that claimed to be fighting against German concentration camps in World War II, only to erect them in Kenya in the 1950s.

Kenyan clothing is a gloriously vile reminder of the horrors of colonialism. Take, for instance, the matronly puffy-shoulder sleeve-top things that your mother or aunt wears. I think they’re called ‘mutton sleeves,’ or something like that, but it’s probably best that Kenyans don’t know what this is, or they’ll eat them! They can be seen on the dresses of nineteenth century Englishwomen in early photographs. Fortunately, our Kenyan versions are in wonderful colours, whereas the English ones were always black, it seems.

The inheritance is most noticeable (and horrible) in school uniforms. Take schoolgirls’ skirts, for instance, which according to almost every uniform list in the land, ‘must be below the knee, ideally ankle length.’ Ankle length skirts? Today? 2014? Really!? Former Minister of Education Mutula Kilonzo may have been many things to girls of school-going age, but he was also correct: our daughters are not nuns, and shouldn’t be hampered by colonial-period dress codes.

However, it’s not only the girls, but also the boys at school: that habit of dressing form ones and twos in shorts and form threes and fours in trousers. This is an inheritance from the British class system. It is also silly. Further, why are boys’ shins acceptable for show, but girls’ shins are not? The expatriate is confused when he visits these antiquated schools to find lower and upper school segregation that reminds him of old photographs of his great grandfather’s schooldays.

Clothing has a terrible history, reflects the expatriate, as he puts on his tweed shorts and knee-length woolen socks. 

 


 

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