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18.11.2004 Feature Article

We Are What We Wear

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The announcement on Friday, November 12, 2004, of the National Friday Wear Programme is one of the most significant acts of freedom and independent thought to come out of Africa in a long time. All serious-minded Africans at home and in the diaspora should greet this initiative as a significant development.

The clothing we wear can be viewed simply as a means to protect our bodies from the environment and to preserve some decency. However, like language, clothing carries significant messages that cannot be underestimated. Our self-image, self-esteem, self-confidence, and cultural identity are all projected in the clothes we wear. Those who are fortunate enough to have real choice in what they wear use their clothes to send a message to those who care to observe them. A young Ghanaian woman in blue jeans and a see-through revealing blouse sends a different message about herself than does one wearing a traditional skirt and blouse made of locally-designed and manufactured material. A young Ghanaian business executive who puts on a western suit and tie to go to work thinks of himself differently than one who goes to the office dressed in a two-piece Ghanaian embroidered trouser and top. The major question is how observers view a person by the clothing he or she is wearing. After all if there were no observers, most of us would not dress the way we do.

We Ghanaians have a serious problem with our self-image. We are excellent copy-cats and we copy mostly that which is Euro-American. While we pride ourselves with our cultural heritage, all the signs around us suggest strongly that we are voluntarily, happily, and quickly abandoning our culture in favor of a phony Euro-American culture. There is no doubt in my mind that to most Ghanaian observers, the young woman in jeans is more sexually attractive than the one in traditional clothes and the young executive in western suit is a more serious businessman than the one in an African suit. Now, project the same people on the Euro-American stage. To a Danish or American visitor in Ghana, which of these Ghanaians commands more attention or respect? Ghanaians at home impress each other by how far Euro-American they can be but, to Europeans and Americans, these “Euro-Africans” appear merely as counterfeits of themselves. The more we try to appear Euro-American, the less respect we receive from those we are trying so hard to copy.

The clothes we wear also have a huge economic value. We spend a lot of money buying clothes. Our textile factories at Akosombo and Tema employ Ghanaians who spend the money they earn to support the Ghanaian economy. When we buy our materials from Holland, we send our money to Dutch workers who use their spending to boost their country's economy. Fewer and fewer Ghanaians dress traditionally these days and much of what we wear is imported from foreign non-African countries. Perhaps the only practice that has so far not been invaded by the Euro-American attire is our wasteful habit of buying new clothes for every funeral. I am sure funeral purchases form the largest source of income for our local textile factories. I hope the National Friday Wear Programme becomes a great success and that the business it generates for our local textile and garments industry will more than replace that produced by the funeral purchases. A well-supported Ghanaian textile and garments industry can be trusted to design tradition-inspired materials and clothes suitable for all business and social occasions.

I congratulate Allan Kyerematen and the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and President's Special Initiative for launching the National Friday Wear Programme. To be taken seriously, the implementation of this initiative should start at the very top of the Ghana government. President Kufuor, who looks much better in Ghanaian than European clothes, should lead by example. I have never seen President Obasanjo of Nigeria in European clothes at any official event; his stature as an African statesman and leader has never been diminished by his African appearance. Likewise, it was a rare sight to see President Nelson Mandela in European suit and tie. Did anybody question his eminence as a world leader? There is no reason why President Kufuor cannot project a Ghanaian image to the world through his choice of clothes. The cabinet, senior government officials, and managers of all public sector establishments should adopt the prgramme personally and encourage their staff to do the same. Since the government is not providing extra pay for its workers to buy clothes for the National Friday Wear Programme, this can only be a voluntary programme. However, as good copy-cats, Ghanaians will hopefully make sure that this is not just a passing government fad but a programme that makes sense, culturally and economically. Eventually, the wisdom of the National Friday Wear Programme should extend the practice to every day of the week so that we will have simply, a National Wear Programme.

The message of the National Friday Wear Programme goes far beyond clothes and economics. It is a message of preservation of African identity, culture, and self-respect. Africans will be better able to deal with each other and with the rest of the world and compete effectively only when we feel comfortable being Africans and not second-class Europeans. Prof. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong, M.D. Philadelphia, U.S.A. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Kwaku Professor M.D. Ohene-Frempong
Kwaku Professor M.D. Ohene-Frempong, © 2004

The author has 4 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwakuProfessorMDOheneFrempong

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