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Dressing Culture in Africa

Dressing is an important component of our daily lives. In the African context, clothes are used for cultural identification and as a status symbol.

The African continent is a wonderfully diverse place with an incredible array of people and places. As such, traditional African clothing is as diverse as the continent itself. From the loose-fitting robe called Kaftan worn by men and women in North Africa to the bright and colorful Zulu skirts worn in South Africa there is an incredible variety of clothes.

Traditional African fabric is hand-made using techniques that have often been passed down from generations. The patterns were often used to distinguish one African tribe or group of people from another.

It’s also important to note that the type of cloth used plays an integral role in making the garment. The fabric often reflects the society in general as well as the status of individuals or groups within that community.

Ethnic group Dogon believed that each stage of the fabric making process was a symbolic analogy to human reproduction and resurrection. They also believed that the weaving of clothes should never be done at night, to do so would weave silence and darkness into the cloth.

Here are a few examples of African cloth fabrics:

  • Akwete cloth

This is a unique hand woven fabric of Igbo women of Akwete in Abia State, Nigeria. The fabric was originally referred to as “Akwa Miri” (Cloth of the water) which means towel and mostly weaved by the women on a vertical loom. Akwete cloth weaving is said to be as old as the Igbo nation.

  • Ukara


Ukara are made exclusively for members of the Ekpe society, an interethnic men’s association found throughout southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon. The designs are part of a dynamic language known as nsibidi, which uses image and gestural performance to communicate knowledge guarded by society members. Ukara cloths are made for a specific individual, who chooses designs of personal significance.

  • Aso oke fabric

This is a hand loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of western Nigeria. Aso oke means top cloth in the English language. Usually woven by men, the fabric is used to make men’s gowns, called Agbada, women’s wrappers, called iro, and men’s hats, called fila.

  • Adire Kente cloth

Adire are indigo resist dyed cotton cloths that were made by women throughout Yoruba land in south-western Nigeria. Resist-dyeing involves creating a pattern by treating certain parts of the fabric in some way to prevent them absorbing dye. Cloths were made up of two strips of factory produced cotton shirting sewn together to form a shape that was roughly square. They were generally worn by women as wrappers.

  • Barkcloth

This type of fabric is made in Uganda, the inner bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) is harvested during the wet season and then, in a long and strenuous process, beaten with different types of wooden mallets to give it a soft and fine texture and an even terracotta color.

  • Mudcloth

Also known as Bogolanfini is a handmade Malian cotton fabric dyed using a process of fermented mud. Traditionally, the men were responsible for weaving the narrow strips of plain fabric that were then pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth.

In the Bambara language, spoken in Mali, the word bògòlanfini is a composition of three words. Bogo, meaning “earth” or “mud,” lan, meaning “with” and fini, meaning “cloth.” The word is translated as “mud cloth.”

  • Kanga

The kanga is a colorful fabric similar to kitenge, but lighter, worn by women and occasionally by men. The earliest pattern of the kanga was patterned with small dots or speckles, which look like the plumage of the guinea hen, also called “kanga” in Swahili.

  • Kitenge

Kitenge or chitenge is an East African, West African and Central African fabric, often worn by women and wrapped around the chest or waist, over the head as a headscarf, or as a baby sling. Kitenges are colorful pieces of fabric. They are common in the Coastal area of Kenya, and in Tanzania. Kitenges are similar to kangas and kikoy, but are of a thicker cloth and have an edging on only a long side.

  • Shweshwe

This is a printed dyed cotton fabric widely used for traditional South African clothing. Originally dyed indigo, the fabric is manufactured in a variety of colors and printing designs characterized by intricate geometric patterns. The local name shweshwe is derived from the fabric’s association with Lesotho’s King Moshoeshoe I.

  • Ankara

Ankara was formerly produced by the Dutch in the early 19th century as batik inspired wax print with the intention of selling the print to Indonesians. However, they were hindered by economic restrictions imposed on the sale of foreign prints by the Indonesia government who were keenly interested in protecting and promoting their locally made batik.

In order to prevent incurring loss, the Dutch changed their target market from Indonesia to Africa, producing batik inspired wax to a more enthusiastic and new market in Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) before spreading to other west Africa, central Africa countries.

There’s a whole lot of history and culture in African textiles so the next time you done African fabric, take time to know where it hails from and whether it had a specific meaning attached to it.


By Cherotich Bernadette

Around Africa with 52 Proverbs

“If you find no fish, you have to eat bread” – Ghana.

The above Ghanaian proverb teaches that sometimes, things don’t go the way you’d anticipated. And when that happens, you have to accept it, take what you can from it, and then move on.

A proverb is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated which expresses a truth based on the practical experience of humanity. Proverbs, or methali as known in the Kiswahili culture, are used to pass on advice from one generation to another. It’s what an older generation would use and still use to reprimand and give instruction when dealing with a younger generation. With hidden meaning, proverbs refer to culture and the environment to pass on wisdom.

This month, we highlight one proverb from each country in Africa to boost your knowledge and expose you to advice across the continent.

Here you go:

“One hand can’t applaud” – Algeria

“It is the voyage not the ship that matters” – Angola

“We can only speak the truth when we turn off the light” – Benin

“Only a lion knows best its own needs and can best serve them” – Botswana

An axe does not cut down a tree by itself” -Burkina Faso

“It is easy to pull a thorn out of someone else’s skin”-Burundi

“A big head is a big load”-Cape Verde

“The heart of the wise man lies quiet like limpid water”        -Cameroon

“When the shepherd comes home in peace, the milk is sweet”-Central African Republic

“Sleep is the brother of death” -Chad

“A fool and water will go the way they are diverted” -Comoros

“Children are the reward of life” -D.R of Congo

“You’re beautiful but learn to work, you cannot eat your beauty” -Congo

“A bad son gives a bad name to his mother” -Cote d’Ivoire

“A camel never sees its own hump”-Djibouti

“If you search for the laws of harmony, you will find knowledge” -Egypt

“A wise man never knows all, only fools know everything” -Equatorial Guinea

“Tomorrow is pregnant and no-one knows what she will give birth to”-Eritrea

“An idle brain is the devil’s workshop”-Eswatini/ Swaziland

“Please all, and you will please none”-Ethiopia

No one test the depth of a river with both feet”-Gabon

“People get fed up even with honey”-Gambia

One head (or person) does not hold council.”-Ghana

He who does not cultivate his field will die of hunger”-Guinea

“What one hopes for is always better than what one has” -Guinea-Bissau

“It is the grass that suffers when elephants fight”-Kenya

“If the palm of the hand itches, it signifies the coming of great luck” -Lesotho

“If you try to cleanse others – like soap, you will waste away in the process”-Liberia

“Silence is the door of consent”-Libya

“Cross in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you” -Madagascar

“If you have, give; if you need, seek”-Malawi

“The hyena chasing two antelopes at the same time will go to bed hungry”-Mali

“Two eyes see better than one”-Mauritania

A hen cannot lay eggs and hatch them in the same day”-Mauritius

The bull defending his own head breaks his horns”-Morocco

A parasite cannot live alone”-Mozambique

“There are many a good tune played on an old fiddle”-Namibia

Only a medicine man gets rich by sleeping”-Niger

A man being short does not make him a boy”-Nigeria

If your mouth turns into a knife, it will cut off your lips”-Rwanda

The crocodile finds refuge in the river when it starts to rain”-Sao Tome and Principe

Your ears are wiser than you are”-Senegal

A well-fed old lion is better than a hungry young one”-Seychelles

If you beat (the drum) for a madman, you are crazy too”-Sierra Leone

“One refusing a sibling’s advice breaks his arm” -Somalia

“By pounding the dough the bread will rise”-South Africa

A fool will not even find water at the Nile”-South Sudan

“Always taking out and never putting in, soon reaches the bottom”-Sudan

“A tree is best measured when it’s down”-Swaziland

“Every bird flies with its own wings”-Tanzania

“Don’t butter the skillet before catching the fish”-Togo

How lovely is the sun after rain, and how lovely is laughter after sorrow”-Tunisia

“A sheep does not lament the death of a goat’s kid”-Uganda

“Your feet will take you away from home, but your stomach will always bring you back”-Zambia

You cannot tell a hungry child that you gave him food yesterday”-Zimbabwe


By Cherotich Bernadette

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