African Clothes Have Meaning and Significance and not Mundane and Powerless
By Maurice N. Amutabi
I read Prof. Evan Mwangi’s treatise on old and emergent themes in the American academy with a lot of interest, having been an African scholar in diaspora myself in the USA until 2010 when I relocated to Kenya. I was impressed that Prof. Mwangi had come to similar realization like me but unfortunate that he was not joining Kisii University but Chuka University. However, what was important for me was that he was coming to assist in the development of Kenya. What fascinated me most about the article is the reference to some issues and aspects that are regarded as mundane and almost meaningless in the production of knowledge that should liberate humans from the ravages of nature. Cultural studies have often been seen to be marginal compared to say economic, political and social studies.
Prof. Mwangi was spot on, in many of the instances, of changing dynamics on how Africa is perceived in the West and how promotions are hard to come by if one does not write on ‘Western’ induced themes. His arguments that some western audiences would love to read and hear about the smell of the African underwear than about the demonic character and legacy of the colonial project and its exploitative and attendant attributes, were accurate. So I agree with the claims in his article to some extent, but at the same time point out that he may have missed to note the value and symbolic meaning of African clothes, which are not as haphazard and random. African societies allocate a lot of importance, symbolism and meaning on clothing. It is therefore imprudent to imagine that the female underwear is marginal in the sense in which he presented it. In western Kenya, female underwear or esibungui or afuong’o are not as mundane, muted and powerless as white female underwear which lack agency, voice and power. The African woman’s esibungui or underwear has power and agency in ways that are unimaginable in Western contexts. It is perhaps one of the single most important garments in many African cultures. Among the Luhya and Luo, esibungui or afuong’o represents potency, power, curse and an important device in discursive spaces and sites about location of female authority and influence.
Esibungui or underwear represents the power of womanhood. If a woman removes esibungui and beats any person with it, it represents one of the biggest curses, beaten in prominence only by the shaking of breasts or bearing of female buttocks. If a matriarch removes esibungui in public, everyone is supposed to run away because if she throws it at anyone or hits anyone with it, it is an abomination which requires cleansing to remove the curse. When it became old, it was not thrown away like other pieces of cloth. It was destroyed and burned and ashes thrown in banana plantations. It was believed if children looked at the esingui of their mother, they could become blind. Esibungui had secrets. It served as cloth, while at the same time it served as a walking bank and safe. In the past, the pockets on the esingui served to keep important jewels and other valuables.
When a young woman dies among the Abaluhya, she cannot be buried in her underwear. The underwear has to be removed on the eve of burial in order for the husband to remarry and bear children. The underwear removal is a ritual done by older women and held in the absence of men. The ritual removal of the underwear is a symbolic permission of the woman, granting the remaining husband to remarry. If by any chance the dead woman had suggested at any given time that when she dies she be buried with her underwear, then the man’s fate on marriage is sealed. He cannot remarry, and even if he does, he may not have children.
The power of the underwear is the reason why many Luhya and Luo men demand to bury their ex-wives so that they are not locked up. They will pay anything demanded as dowry for the dead wives in order to have the chance to burry without underwear in order to allow them to remarry and bear children again. In the event that dowry is paid in full, members of the parties in the marriage have to prepare for the ceremony of removing the underwear from the corpse.
Underwear is not your everyday garment among many African societies. It plays a very important role in semiotics and coded language. The role and responsibility of a man starts with making sure that all women in his life have enough ebibungui (plural for esibungui). It is the first test for any man in proving his worth. If he cannot provide esibungui, then he cannot even provide for his wife and family.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of Academic and Student Affairs at Kisii University. Amutabi@yahoo.com