When the Ugandan gomesi became bigger than busuti (Part 2)

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

Many more Ugandans were glowing, and the womenfolk became ampler, accentuating the famed Ugandan trait of curvaceousness.

Over 100 years, as we noted last week, the busuti (gomesi) evolved into a quintessentially Ugandan dress item, shaped by many forces and contradictory history. It also underwent its most dramatic wave of creative expression between 1990 and 2000. It was driven by the boom that came with the start of economic liberalisation in 1988. That boom, for the first time, had a very feminine face. The economic reforms of the period came with a major opening of access to passports. The post-Cold War period was also more open, and  Ugandans started flocking to Dubai to buy stuff. That partly led to the development of “container” shops in downtown Kampala. The confluence of Dubai and the “container” shops produced the biggest cohort of independent women with their own money in the country’s history.

The country was also ending nearly 15 years of deprivation. The stench from the atrocities in the Luweero War was still in the air metaphorically, and if you drove through Luweero you could smell it in reality. The grim years and the Luweero war aftermath needed a counterpoint. It came via a burst in colour. The contribution of the Ugandan business people, and especially women, trading in Dubai and the Gulf more broadly, brought back Arab-inspired colour. Downtown, along especially Luwum Street, big shops overflowing with an extraordinary array of bright fabrics sprung up. One time when I went with our mum to buy some fabrics, she was so spoilt for choice, that she struggled to make a pick. At the same time as that flourish of colour, there were experimentations in style. Among other things, and to the outrage of the purists, the busuti was tapered, reducing the bunch at the waist, making it lighter overall. It was a recognisable tendency in fashion that has been witnessed in many other places all over the world for decades; when there is prosperity fashion tends to move in the opposite direction, by becoming more minimalist and understated. In times of difficulty, fashion gets louder, perhaps to compensate.

The longest post-independence period of economic stability, and the growth of the private sector, was soon very evident in the look of the citizens. Many more Ugandans were glowing, and the womenfolk became ampler, accentuating the famed Ugandan trait of curvaceousness. That pretty much settled the direction of busuti. Those figures needed to be dressed in imposing busuti. The shoulders, though, puffed out a little more.

Next, the busuti got reshaped by the emergence of very new forms of kwanjula (betrothal ceremonies). Previously, kwanjula were tame private family affairs. When you do a visual search of kwanjula before 1990, you will hardly find any images. Those that exist present an austere, even dull, picture. The 1990s changed all that. Again, the war years, economic expansion, and ravages of HIV/Aids, largely explain it. Luweero, and later the north, and Aids led to a break from the hold of established traditions. There was a rebellion against old morality. A new social and sexual permissiveness came to be. In the media, it was expressed in soft porn magazines like Chic and bold sex and relationship advice columns in the mainstream newspapers like New Vision and The Monitor. Kampala nightlife also got swept by “Kimansulo” (extravagantly sexually suggestive stage dance). The Ugandan motorsport and Club football scenes entered a glory phase, and the fans became highly sexualised. After-race and game parties were scenes from Sodom and Gomorrah. The guardians of national culture became alarmed and declared that the republic was about to collapse like sinful Rome.

And then there was the explosion of a youthful demographic, and they disrupted what remained. Kwanjula became an event where the groom and his buddies, most of them supporters of the same local football club or Premier League side, and the bride and her friends, put on a show. The old cultural establishment, its authority weakened, could no longer keep kwanjulas glum-faced. Kampala too grew uncontrollably big, bursting out from its proverbial seven hills, to probably one hundred today. A messy urban sprawl, it however also became more cosmopolitan than it ever was.

Additionally for the women, the busuti ceased to be a robe. It became a canvas of creative expression. An art object in a grand cultural exhibition. This was where they painted their Mona Lisas. If you go on Facebook and Pinterest, the most colourful and intricate things you will find about Uganda are photographs of the women in their busuti at kwanjula.

We might not have gotten here, without a history of conflict, the many years of economic deprivation, the cultural-shifting effects of HIV/AidS, and the peculiarities of NRM no-party rule.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,

writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]


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