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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Kenya MPs fight 'colonial' dress code
Raila Odinga
Raila Odinga was cheered for his Nigerian-style attire
Three Kenyan members of parliament have entered the chamber in African clothes, in violation of rules dating back to the colonial era.

The three received a severe dressing down from Speaker Francis ole Kaparo and were thrown out of parliament last Friday.

But on Tuesday they were back - without the suits and ties demanded by the rules.

This time they were allowed to stay, and a committee will debate the controversial regulations later in the week.

Roads and Public Works Minister Raila Odinga was cheered when he entered parliament in a brightly-coloured Agbada, a flowing Nigerian robe.

"I was happy to see Raila seated in parliament dressed like a Nigerian minister," said MP Koigi wa Wamwere.


Mr Wamwere who is often seen sporting long flowing gowns has this year twice been asked to leave the House.

"Parliament should support African regalia," he added.

Koigi wa Wamwere
Mr Wamwere fears that Kenya is not culturally independent

Mr Kaparo said that so far as he was concerned, Mr Odinga was wearing Nigerian attire.

He became impatient when Gor Sunguh, another unsuited dissident, bowed a number of times to cheering MPs, showing off his khaki casual trousers and a button-down shirt.

"This argument that the only dress that can be decent is European dress is to me awfully colonial. And I am not sure that even Europeans would today dare advance such an argument," Mr Wamwere said.

"So you will be surprised that the champions of our new colonial culture, new colonial ideology new colonial argument today are not Europeans anymore. It is the Africans," he said.

Male emancipation

He criticised the speaker for applying the double standards when it comes to the female MPs.

Mr Gor Sunguh
Mr Gor Sunguh's shirt did not impress Kenya's Speaker

"I see ladies allowed to wear quite freely. They come in trousers, nobody complains - they come in African dresses - they have full freedom to do so.

Mr Wamwere demanded for the male MPs to enjoy the same freedom which the ladies have.

However, Mr Kaparo, said that Mr Wamwere's outfit was not really African.

OJ Hakim, a designer with African Inspirations in Nairobi told the BBC Network Africa programme that African attire could be very expansive and could come in different shapes and forms.

"I think that the African culture is very diverse and there are so many things within the culture that inspire African design.

African pride

The BBC's Nyambura Wambugu in Nairobi says that it is not only the men who are complaining and that women are questioning the dress rule which has never been changed since the colonial era to adjust with modern times.

Cecily Mbarire, a nominated member of the parliament says MPs should be given an opportunity to debate the dress code.

Supporters of African attire outside the Kenyan parliament
Designers want the parliament to be proud of African culture

"What is acceptable to whom, that is the question.

"I think the dress code in this parliament needs to be discussed and we need to give our view because Koigi wa Wamwere has been consistent with the African attire I do not know see the reason why he can't be allowed to be in the parliament," Ms Mbarire said.

Mr Wamwere told the BBC that although the country has become politically free, he is worried that culturally Kenya is far from being independent and it is still tied to the European culture.

Our reporter says that the move by members of parliament has prompted the speaker to refer the matter to the house committee that will discuss the issue in depth and whose recommendations the house will adopt.

A group of Kenyan designers has backed the rebelling MPs and called for the government to "embrace, encourage and support ways of dressing among its senior members that honour Africa's unique culture and proud history".

What do you think?

Should African MPs be allowed to wear African clothes?

Or is a strict dress code needed to show respect in parliament?

This debate is now closed. Here is a representative sample of the comments we received.

Many people in Africa, particularly the so called elite, seem to think that to be modern one has to act, talk and dress like a European. They regard the local customs and mode of dress as primitive. Many of the politicians are simply colonialists in black skin. It shameful to see judges wearing wigs and robes that are alien to Africa.
Nyakairu, USA

We have to be careful how we interpret and exercise our freedoms. Demanding to be allowed to wear an Agbada to the parliament is preposterous! Would you wear it to the office? No. Parliament is no different. For those who think that having to wear dress pants, shirt and a tie to parliament is slavery, why not simply do away with everything brought about by the white folks. I say go back to wearing traditional dresses, speaking in traditional languages (no English....noooo...that's enslavement too, you know), walk wherever you go (a real African wouldn't drive a Mercedes now, would he?) don't use computers, put up a nice thatched hut and oh, don't forget to go back to hunting and gathering! We need rules and regulations that are not open to personal interpretation! I say suit and tie or get tossed out. Period
John Njoroge, USA

Let me invoke the memory of the great Fela Kuti and I quote : "If you say you be colonial man, you don be slave man before. Dem don release you now, but you nor wan release e yourself...." Fela Kuti - Colo mentality Femi
Femi Anthony, USA (Sierra Leone)

Yes, a strict dress code is needed. Shorts should not be allowed but formal African dress code should be allowed. Babbar Riga (Agbada) is a formal kind of African dressing. But if you mean strict European type clothing should be imposed on Africans, that is absolute hogwash.
Farouk Salim, USA

For the respect of the august house there should be a dress code to be adhered to by all members, particularly male members. If not, the members will be dressing like they are going to the market or to a party.
Gassanja Joseph, United States

No matter what they wear, Africa is still funded and supported by Britain and other western nations. They speak our language and use our money. Clothes will never change that.
David Eubanks, USA-British

I expect those dress codes are from a much more formal era, when no man left the house without a suit and tie and no woman without her hat and gloves. Westerners rarely dress that way anymore, why should people on other continents? The MPs should be free to wear whatever they like and are comfortable in, as long as they are neatly dressed in clothing appropriate for the climate, culture, and the work being done.
Amy, USA

I think it is really important to dress comfortably for the weather. Wearing suits on a hot sunny African day is not particularly comfortable. Europeans and North Americans dress to reflect the weather conditions they face. We (as Africans) should also do same. Having said that, it is pertinent that one should not dress "sloppy" to a respectable institution like the House of Parliament. But what is "sloppy" will be another bone of contention.
Gboyega Adesina, canada

Kenya is coming of age. Am I please to see some thinking and progressing leaders. My question is, will our politicians improve the quality of their work and start to serve the country as they should if they can now dress as they like? You go Raila!! Nawa for your Agbada
MUTHEU, Switzerland

Kenyans must as a matter of urgency begin the throw those drabs of colonial Africa. Stand up and be counted, be proud of your Africaness. Wear those beautiful flowing agbadas, kikuyu traditional dresses, Masai styles and walk the land of your birth with dignity and pride.
Kunke Adeniyi, United States Of America

Bear in mind, Kenya MPs, that the material for the so-called African garments or regalia are all manufactured in either Britain or The Dutch--giving then hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Where is the African Pride, then? Unless Africans start patronising what they themselves create, these empty noises about pride in African culture would forever remain just an ordinary dressing, a camouflage that hides our own inability to be truly original.
Mohammed Ali, Ghana

Finally a wind of change is blowing in Africa. There is now a realization that Africans lost almost everything they had (including their culture)to slavery and colonialism. Kenya's members of parliament have every right to wear African clothing. This will be a good example for the young generation to emulate. Young Africans are on the verge of losing their African identity because of the influence of the western culture. Some of them cannot even speak their own language because according to them it is inferior and they try all they can to perfect their English or American accents. Africans should adhere to their culture and cultural education and history should be enhanced to inform the youths that there is nothing to be apologetic about for being African.
J. Mumbi Mugambi, Kenya/USA

I see no problem with the African dress for our male Parliamentarians. However, I think the so-called dignity of the House would be interfered with, if a colour code is not established. I think just like the Bar and the Bench, our Parliamentarians should be required to stick to dark clothing, irrespective of the cut or fabric.
Caroline Ndolo, Kenya

I am surprised that the Speaker of the Kenya Parliament is acting this way. He should tell us what he sees wrong with African attire. Ghanaian parliamentarians wear national dresses like the northern smock to parliament. And we are proud of them.
Ali Anankpieng, Ghana

The late Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham until his untimely death 3 years ago, often wore traditional African dress at the State opening of the UK Parliament. A few eyebrows were certainly raised but he was most certainly not thrown out. If such attire is OK for the British Parliament I m sure that the world would not end if it were allowed in Kenya.
Martin, UK

I can't even believe this is being discussed as a major controversial issue. That the speaker of the House would take the time to throw someone out because of what they were wearing boggles the mind. Why the dress code rule has been allowed to exist even 1 minute after that happened is shameful. Get rid of the rule and unless someone is naked in the houses of parliament - GET ON WITH RUNNING THE COUNTRY !!!
Robert Maina, Belgium

Surely part of the beauty of Africa is the incredible variety of life, this includes the people and their clothes. Let that beauty be seen everywhere including parliament, why restrict them to our dull and drab European styles.
Paul, UK

How ridiculous this war of attire has become in Kenya. I remind all those distinguished legislature to stop wasting time on this very trivial issue and start pursuing issue pertaining to economic growth, national security and disease killing millions of our fellow citizens everyday.
Reuben Amoke, United States of America

And as usual, put the blame on Europeans, whites, or whatever you want to call the people you blame.......
Anonymous, Earth

The spirit of Dedan Kimathi must be very troubled indeed. How can a people ever expect success when they are always imitating others and shun their own traditions?
Dr. A. Garrett Mills, USA

I have on recent occasions seen some African leaders dressed in three-piece suit and other oppressive western attire, parading themselves in the blistering heat of the continent. Common sense would suggest that one would fare better, if garbed in outfit that is essentially suited for its own environment.
Patrick Babalola Sosu, Atlanta, GA. USA

I think this is a reasonable rebellion against an enduring vestige of colonialism in Africa. It is symbolic that these significant signals of reasoned rejection are beaming from parliament, the very epitome of the people's independence. I eagerly look forward to the day when African professionals, especially African lawyers, similarly shelve the shackles of dressing themselves up in colonially inherited but environmentally unsuitable outfits.
Kingsley Jesuorobo, Toronto, Canada

Not all revolutions start with the sound of gunshots, we are now in the twenty first century and yet some law makers cannot wear cultural and climate friendly African clothes to make laws for Africans. The dissenting members of Kenya's parliament have started a revolution that is not only going to change the way Kenyans think and act but also reborn in them African pride, The suits and ties don't confer superior intelligence on the wearer.
Enifadhe Joe Orivri, United states of America

African MPs should abide by a strict and respectful dress code - but one of their cultural choosing.
Dilip Jivan, USA

I would like to remind the members of parliament that Kenya is in an economic and health CRISIS. Surely, this cannot be the time for trading fashion tips!
Eric Njogu Mbuthia, Kenya

If one observes black people over many years it becomes apparent that they have a need for more bright and warm colours in their lives than do the more dour Anglo Saxons. I was nurtured by and have lived with black folks all my life, shared their humble homes when I was young, was taught to ride and shoot by them and often feel more at home with them than with most whites. Many of the blacks in my home county in Kentucky still carry my family name and are very, very successful large farm owners. So, I do not find it out of place to think that Africans find European business suits boring and depressing. They should wear whatever is formal within their sphere of reference today!
Bill Riffe 74 years old., usa

There is no harm in wearing traditional clothes but at the same time, it very primitive to believe or even think that a suit and a tie are symbol of colonialism. We live in the 21-century and a suit is no longer a symbol of colonialism. I am afraid the colonialist came and left but some of our citizens still have not changed with times. The acclaimed father of Pan Africanism, the great Edward Wilmot Blyden tried to propose this same idea in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the nineteenth century. His flowery speeches and warm oratorial rhetoric made the idea succeed for a while. Only for the elite to undermine him once again and start dressing like the cultural mongrels they were. I foresee the same thing happening in Kenya. Odinga and co. will last for a while but the cultural slavery has been too deeply embedded in the average African.
Alimamy Ceesay, USA

Aren't there any more pressing issues to deal with in Parliament other than dress code? How about debating the ridiculous increase in MP salary that was passed some time back as the lay man struggles to pay taxes. Are we paying taxes so that our MPs can express themselves via dresscode? infuriated Kenyan
In the US, the way one dresses often influences how people think of them. As sad as this sounds, I think I would have difficulty trusting a person in the government if they wore a t-shirt and jeans to meetings. As long as what they wear does not affect the public's view of them, they should be allowed to wear anything.
Adric Waterhouse, Dayton, Ohio USA

I must expose my ignorance in acknowledging the fact that I have never imagined that there is any parliament in Africa where the parliamentarians are outlawed from dressing in African regalia. I have lived with the myopic understanding that African parliamentarians, like those in my country, Cameroon, are free to dress in African regalia. Shame to Keyan parliamentarians who fail to see the propriety of dressing in African regalia in parliament! Shame!
Luther, USA

Certainly, Africans must put on their national wears, which are more comfortable than the suits. Putting on suits just proves the point that Africans are still colonial slaves. Clothes show the way you think, and European clothes put on by an African shows how much he wants to imitate the European to solve African problems.
Kondwani Kamiyala, Malawi

let Africans be free from mental slavery, let them wear maasai dress if they want so.
thani, belgium

It is retrogressive to instil a rule made up by European colonialists decades ago with the aim of diminishing African pride for their culture. It is sad that in this day and age that someone as enlightened and well educated as the Speaker would throw members of parliament out of the house merely because they are representing their heritage and culture. I am almost certain that the MPs that were dressed in 'unacceptable' regalia did not do so to spite or show disrespect for the house. In my opinion the rules of what characterizes acceptable dress in parliament need to be revised.
Paul Githiga, USA

Yes, we should accept being Africans. What better way to show this than by dressing up in a typical way that can be recognised as African. Who would dispute the beauty of a Maasai "maradadi"? Of course we should dress sensibly and in moderation.
Andrew Okello, Netherlands (currently in Iraq)

The members of parliament should be allowed to wear their African clothing. I believe that the speaker of the house has been so socialized that he can not appreciate African clothing as being appropriate. As Bob Marley said "emancipate yourselves from mental slavery", I say to the speaker of the house emancipate your mind from colonial bondage.
Cavel Curtis, Jamaica

Country profile: Kenya
17 Jun 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Kenya
07 May 03  |  Country profiles

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