Looking beyond the outfit: Okonjo-Iweala’s Message to Africans

On her first day at work, the World Trade Organization Director-General, Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, walked up the stairs to her Geneva office, proudly displaying her signature African wax fabric. Thrilled at such a display of her African authenticity, the hashtag, #BeLikeNgoziChallenge, trended afterwards; people dressed up in her style and took pictures for social media. Beyond the apparel, Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s accession to the leadership of the WTO clothed in African wax print is symbolically deep.  Unspoken but clearly implied in that singular act is the pathway for Africa’s economic advancement and overall progress.

One of the absurdities that have characterized white-collar work across much of sub-Saharan Africa is the retention of the colonially bequeathed dress code imposed partly for the purpose of enriching the colonial authorities. Clad in suits, to the point of sometimes becoming drenched with perspiration, Africa’s white-collar workers trudge on. The female folk’s sweaty discomfort is exacerbated by the malaise of spending hours searching for a fitting western style for their curvy and well-formed bodies. On their part, Africa’s lawyers and judges sweat through expensive wigs, fit only for the cold and wet climate of Europe and the Americas. How much of an impact such discomfort has on legal interactions and decisions is yet to be established.

Young African schoolchildren are not spared the debacle. It is not uncommon to find suit-clad schoolchildren, armpits brown from dust and sweat, roughing it out in an overheated classroom before an equally uncomfortably clad instructor. Apparently, schools that require pupils to dress up in jackets and ties as part of complete school uniform do so to prepare students for the job market.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s attire is only the outward manifestation of the inward workings of the mind of the former Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, who has always stood for the economic independence of Africa. Indeed, wearing African wax print is only one way of non-verbally asserting her belief that Africa should throw off the garbs of dependency and begin to add value to her originality.

African countries were not the only colonized entities to be subjected to the colonial wardrobe tragedy. India, a country that grew cotton and wove fabrics for centuries before British colonialism, was equally a victim. During colonialism, Indian grown cotton was forcefully purchased for a pittance from growers and shipped off to Great Britain, where they were processed, dyed, spun and woven. After the appropriate tax has been applied, the manufactured fabrics are sent back to India, where they are sold to Indians at extortionate prices. In the process, Indians acquired a taste for European manufactured fabrics and a disdain for local fabrics. India, a country formerly famous for its textile production and processing, became impoverished as a result of this dependency.

In the fight against colonialism, Mahatma Gandhi realized quickly enough that there could be no independence without a freeing of India’s textile industry. He made people’s way of dressing one of the leading symbols of India’s quest for Independence.

Rather than advocate the mere exchange of British personnel with Indian nationals in political positions and civil service across the nation, Gandhi urged Indians to first throw off the shackles of their mental dependency by going back to spinning their own clothes. Gandhi himself, to show/be an example, learned how to spin fabric and began to spin his own clothes. His examples inspired millions of Indians, and in 1920 at the Nagpur session of the Indian National Congress, a motion was moved to promote Khadi, a nationalistic homemade fabric, across India. Hundreds of thousands of Indians lit bonfires with their imported fabrics afterwards. What followed was a mass production of weaving machines for home use and the subsequent boom of the local manufacturing of Indian fabrics and other goods. Therefore, rather than the minimal exchange of flags and political power, independence for India entailed the freedom to create, to innovate and to add value around what is authentically Indian.

Although Gandhi had a significant influence on the independence rhetoric of many of Africa’s founding leaders, apparel liberation did not feature prominently in the latter’s independence struggle. Some African leaders did try, nevertheless. When Patrice Lumumba’s rhetoric appeared to mirror Gandhi’s economic liberation strategy in DRC, he was assassinated by the powers who would have lost out. Likewise, Thomas Sankara arose in Burkina Faso to insist on such an independence and met the same fate as Lumumba. Without mobilizing the philosophical foundations of economic independence, other African countries went ahead to construct huge textile mills after Independence. But given the absence of a transformed and liberated mindset to ensure sustainability, most of such huge textile mills all but disappeared.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote: “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” Indeed, beyond the man, the apparel proclaims the nation. A nation that neither makes its own unique and distinctive clothing nor celebrates its authenticity through its dressing is hardly proclaimed or recognized in the comity of nations.

An African proverb says that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Africa continues to experience “bad economic weather”, partly but significantly as a result of the inability of much of the continent’s population to cover their own “nakedness”. This continued dependency on external forces for the basic need of clothing has crippled creativity, innovation, drive and cross-sectoral growth across the region. Resources that would have been channelled into growing the economy around clothes and fabric production are used in importing ready-made clothes to dress the nation’s working class and the rest of the populace.

Still, there are pockets of change that must be lauded across the continent. The Nigerian fashion industry, the South African fashion industry and those of a few other countries are all working hard to regenerate based on endogenous designs – but the road is still long.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala has “spoken”—very loudly—and Africans must now respond. The public and private sectors will do well to transform the dress code to reflect what is organically African. Working in a corporate environment need not remain a western enigma in the African’s mind. The Whiteman’s work for which one must dress like a Whiteman in order to conduct effectively should now be a thing of the past.

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