Matooke ne binyebwa: Ugandan T-shirts and the stories they tell
What you need to know:
- Food as a social code. Food in Uganda is a social code, in part of the history. Compare it, again, with Kenya. Kenya didn’t have kingdoms, in the sense in which Uganda had them. And Uganda, even with the smaller size that comprises it present land area, had them - and major chiefdoms - in far greater numbers than every country in the region.
I saw a beautiful Ugandan t-shirt on an online store, with the words “Matooke & Binyebwa: Fully charged”. The only reason I haven’t yet bought it, is that it is only available in yellow.
I am not sure, given the political times, the shortage of humour, and the vigilance of the Social Media Police, that I could get away with wearing ruling NRM colours. I will not buy it in green, blue, or red either. I have asked them to alert me when it’s available in burgundy or dark.
I pay some attention to the art and politics of T-shirts, and in Africa, there’s something very different about the Ugandan T-shirt. I will not list them, but two other examples will illustrate our case:
A while back, the Styleinc256 blog noted in an article about the local DEF.I.NI.TION T-shirts company that“…they definitely don’t make tee shirts that are the norm, it’s basically an effort to shock the system and not to blend.” However, one would argue that a lot of the most interesting T-shirt makers in the world do that, so what is different about the ones in Uganda.
A long while back, I was asked by the young powers to be in our house, to bring back “KTM T-shirts” on a trip to Kampala. “What is that?” I asked.
I was laughed out of the house. KTM was of course “Kyaba Too Much” (It’s Too Much). It struck me then that it was unusual for a slogan on a T-shirt to be an abbreviation, because that is next stage consciousness.
That happens because while some of the most memorable T-shirts are often political, and Bobi Wine and his #PeoplePower have probably mastered that better than other political actors, around East Africa, it’s in Uganda that a body of urban-speak, tongue-in-cheek social commentary, and cultural celebration has developed the most on T-shirts.
You need to take a leap to West Africa, notably Nigeria and Ghana, to find something close.
For example, electricity utility Umeme, like in the rest on the continent, is deeply unpopular. But it’s only in Uganda that it produced what was once a wildly popular and hilarious parody Twitter account. Not surprisingly, Styleinc256 tipped its hat to a DEF.I.NI.TION T-shirt sticking it to Umeme – F.U.M.E.M.E.
Blink and you miss it. So what does the T-shirt do in Uganda? It’s one of the few places on the continent where the T-shirt is a page, a creative canvas. And that in turn raises the question of why that is so.
Superficially, “Matooke & Binyebwa” is just “banana and groundnut sauce”. But Ugandans who’ve travelled far beyond home, will have encountered foreigners who upon learning they are children of the soil, blurted to them “Matooke and Binyebwa”. In other words, there is more of a salt of the earth expression in it that than, saying “Ugali na nyama” (in Ugandese “posho and meat”).
While Ugali is popularly used in Kenya, it has mostly a very political and economic connotation; i.e. “that will not put ugali on the table”. Or the more cryptic form “The Good, The Bad, The Ugali”, the one-off jazz album by Kenyan collective Jazz Tu (probably among the best contemporary albums in Africa), which is a play on the 1966 classic Western film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Food in Uganda is a social code, in part of the history. Compare it, again, with Kenya. Kenya didn’t have kingdoms, in the sense in which Uganda had them.
And Uganda, even with the smaller size that comprises it present land area, had them - and major chiefdoms - in far greater numbers than every country in the region. Food plays a big role around the patronage and culture that revolve around palaces, and assumes nationalist content in competition with other kingdoms. That gives it the kind of second-level meaning needed to make it to T-shirts.
That, of course, doesn’t explain why they are the canvas and page for young Ugandans.
It’s a tentative conclusion, but it seems to have something to do with war, displacement, and HIV/Aids. Whereas these crises affected many young Africans too over the last three decades, all three in succession hit few as Ugandan youth were from 1972 to 2006.
This latter bit needs a book, but the short of it is that these crises, removed a critical member from Ugandan society – the storyteller (the middle aged mother, aunt, or grandfather).
By the late 1990s, a 12-year-old Ugandan child heading a family of war and/or HIV/Aids orphans, had to tell stories to young siblings, that he would instead have been hearing from his mother if he was that age in 1970. In this way, the language for young ears became grown up in Ugandan ahead of its time – and ended on our chests.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data.
visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site. Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]