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21.11.2004 Feature Article

We Are What We Wear–Rejoinder

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As someone who delights in wearing all manner of traditional Ghanaian attire, I cannot fault the need by some to project our culture by the cloth we wear. The launching of the “National Friday Wear Programme”, which is meant to encourage people to dress in made-in-Ghana clothing to work is commendable. So is a commentary on the programme titled “We Are What We Wear” that was published on Ghanaweb.com on November 18, 2004, by Dr. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong.

According to Dr. Ephraim Amu (the author of the Ghanaian patriotic song “Yen ara y'asase ni”), he was moved to pen the song in part because while a student at Achimota School, he was reprimanded for wearing a Ghanaian traditional cloth to a school function! A significant part of the mis-education of the Ghanaian in the colonial era, was the attempt to foist foreign concepts and practices on the 'natives', to the detriment of the indigenous culture. Ghanaians were taught to be ashamed of all manner of their cultural traits. In fact, some people who attended secondary school stopped eating traditional staple food such as 'fufu', to confirm their entry into European civilization.

Thankfully, some of the more bizarre traits that some Ghanaians adopted, and then ignorantly equated to being 'civilized', have been cast off. Some remain in their decadence, notwithstanding.

Perhaps the single most bizarre apparition that emerged at the swearing-in of president Kufour in early January 2001, was that of a photo of the Chief Justice of Ghana in full regalia. The late Justice Aban was said to be 'resplendent' in a three-piece suit, topped by a heavy coat or robe (from shoulder to ankle!), hands covered in white gloves, and cotton wig atop his hair!! All this while sitting in the hot January sun and heat! I have always wondered why my 'learned friends' (as Ghanaian lawyers insist on calling each other), continue to wear these worn wigs and long robes nearly a half century after our 'independence'!

Yet much was said at the launching of the National Friday Wear Program, and the subsequent supportive article by Dr. Kwaku Ohene-Frempong, a noted Ghanaian specialist in Sickle Cell disease in Philadelphia, USA., that requires further comment.

Granted an objective of the wear indigenous attire is cultural renewal, the singular driving force ought to be economic. Let it be said that Africans who harp upon slogans such as 'African Personality'; 'African Culture'; and other high-flown cultural campaigns are the first to deny other Africans their 'personality' through inhumane dictatorship and corruption. Thus we could be dressed in the most native of African garbs, that alone would not be enough to transcend and ameliorate wrong-headed policies that bring to question our worth as Africans.

The Washington Post carried an article in its November 17, 2004, issue that explains how the global textile trade valued at over $400 billion is on the verge of major restructuring come January 1, 2005. On that date, World Trade Organization (WTO) quotas that specified how many blue jeans or how much fabric a country could export would undergo major revision. Buyers would be able to purchase as much as they want from countries that offer the lowest price. Such revision would favour China which already earns about $80 billion in exports, and is also the acknowledged low-cost producer of such goods.

No African country made the list among countries exporting billions of dollars worth of fabrics to the United States and Europe. Apparently we have not fully put in place measures that would entice investors in order to capitalize on opportunities provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Since other countries have taken a big lead in this race for investors and buyers, unless Ghana sweetens the deal, AGOA will merely leave a sour taste in our mouth!

A facet of the campaign is the Ghana market itself, which if successful could provide jobs for thousands of people. There is a strong factor militating against the growth of the indigenous market, however. This is the almighty second-hand clothing 'business' in Ghana. As a friend confided in me recently in Kumasi; 'nearly everybody in Ghana wears “Oburoni w'awu”!! Years ago, it used to be mainly shirts and trousers. Today one finds women's panties and braziers; handkerchiefs; towels; ties; suits; you name it!

Indeed, it appears Ghana has become a one-stop market for every used item from America and Europe. The range of second-hand goods on the market is mind-boggling. From automobile parts, lawn mowers; bicycles of every type; televisions and stereo systems; fridges, microwave ovens; etc., etc. And then there are cars!

Of course, there has always been a niche market for used goods in countries all over the world. Yet the preponderance of second-hand goods in the Ghana market ought to raise alarm bells.

Ghanaians have now formalized the use of what other people have discarded. Hardly anybody buys anything brand new in our country anymore. It is sad to say that most of these second-hand goods are complete JUNK. Yet fellow Ghanaians decide to import them anyway in the name of 'doing business'! In reality, these people are undermining business in Ghana. The environmental and health hazards attending these used goods cannot be over-emphasized.

Another twist to the campaign is the misleading claims that wearing suits or non-African garb somehow tarnishes the culture. Dr. Ohene-Frempong writes: 'President Kufour who looks much better in Ghanaian than European clothes, should lead by example'. He then cites Nigerian president Obasanjo who wears traditional attire, as someone whose 'stature as an African statesman and leader has never been diminished by his African appearance'. Nana Akomeah, the Minister of Information went further by suggesting that president Kufour should use 'palm wine instead of foreign drink', while proposing a toast (apparently at an official banquet). Haven't we been through all this before, as a nation! It could get crazy!!

Let me state here that president Kufour looks as well in Kente cloth, as he does in a so-called western suit. And I certainly prefer 'Odoka' to palm wine!

Nearly all European countries have their traditional wear, which they adopt when appropriate. I have never seen Tony Blair the British Premier who is a Scot in the traditional Scottish skirt! The Chinese have even stopped wearing the Mao suit in favour of 'western' suit. Certain norms and practices have been formalized to the point of becoming universal. This explains why a billion Chinese are eagerly learning English whereas merry old England is in no hurry to learn Chinese!!

Above all, being African is foremost an idea that cannot be elevated nor diminished by what we wear. While there is a need to preserve our culture, and make some money while doing it; we must avoid pigeonholing ourselves into ridicule. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Kofi Ellison
Kofi Ellison, © 2004

The author has 60 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KofiEllison

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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