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What is Traditional Clothing; A Conversation with my Nan

I was on a call with my Nan last night, and we chatted for what felt like hours. You know how it is with grandparents; they never run out of stories and wisdom that they are more than happy to share. During our call, what struck me the most was a phrase she repeated often: "Nothing beats our Aṣọ Òkè." My Nan kept mentioning it, it was almost as if she was urging me to embrace our traditional attire even in the midst of modern trends and clothing.

women wearing traditional clothing

A few weeks later I went to visit my grandmother. Being the first to arrive, I greeted her as she welcomed me warmly. And as always, we sat down and started our usual chats. She started talking about Ankara and other African fabrics with so much pride. I couldn't help myself and asked her "But what is traditional clothing really?" I know what it is but never heard it explained by the biggest advocates of traditional clothing. When she started talking about traditional African clothing I couldn't contain my excitement. Having started this journey at River & Mara, her wisdom about traditional African attire resonated with me even more than it did before.

"Ola, your generation has so much potential but you must remember to cherish our cultural heritage, especially in your clothing choices." - my Nan.

Nan's words resonated with me deeply as she continued to paint a vivid picture of the significance of traditional African clothing. She spoke of how it symbolises our cultural identity, our history and our way of life as African people, not only in Africa but across the globe.

"Traditional African clothing is more than just fabric and thread. It's a reflection of who we are as a people—our values, our traditions, and our pride." - Nan

While she spoke, memories flooded my mind—memories of family gatherings, cultural celebrations, and special occasions where traditional attire took centre stage. I remembered the joy of wearing matching Ankara outfits with my siblings, feeling a sense of pride as we celebrated our Nigerian heritage together. But my Nan explained that the clothing is more than just attire for special occasions. She reminded me that traditional African clothing can be a part of our everyday lives, a constant reminder of our roots and our identity.

"Embrace our traditional clothing, wear it proudly, not just on special occasions, but every day. Let it be a reminder of who you are and where you come from." - Nan

I thanked her for sharing her stories and asked her, "Since you offered History as a course while in school, could you please tell me more about African Clothing in a more traditional sense, Manmi?"

"I'm glad you asked", she said, "let's first go outside and dine with nature, and I'll explain it to you." Granny's voice resonated with pride as she spoke of Africa. "Africans," she said, "are the custodians of ancient wisdom, the guardians of traditions passed down through the ages. We are the rhythm of the styles, the creativity beneath the stars, the laughter that echoes through the savannah." Africa starts with the continent and spreads its wings around the globe, filling that world with diversity and vitality. As Nan spoke, her voice carried the essence of Africans—a people of strength, resilience, and boundless beauty.

Traditional Clothing Across the Continent

In West Africa, traditional clothing often features brightly coloured fabrics such as Ankara, Kente, and Aso Oke, woven with intricate patterns and symbols that hold deep cultural significance. These fabrics are used to create a variety of garments, from flowing robes and headwraps to tailored suits and dresses.

In East Africa, traditional clothing varies from region to region, with each community boasting its own unique styles and techniques. The Maasai, for example, are known for their distinctive red shukas adorned with intricate beadwork, while Kenya's Kikuyu favours brightly coloured kangas and kitenges.

maasai wearing tribal clothing

Central and Southern Africa also have their own rich traditions of clothing and adornment. In countries like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, traditional clothing often features elaborate embroidery and embellishments, while in South Africa, the brightly coloured shweshwe fabric is a popular choice for traditional attire.

But traditional African clothing is more than just fashion; it's a symbol of cultural pride and identity. For many, wearing traditional clothing is a way to connect with their roots, honour their ancestors, and celebrate their heritage. It's a reminder of who they are and where they come from, no matter where in the world they may find themselves.

three women wearing african prints

As I mentioned, thinking about African prints reminded me of the family gatherings where we all wore traditional African clothing, we wore them to not only honour our heritage and culture but also to celebrate our family. The African fabrics are deeply intertwined with memories, cultural celebrations, and special occasions. Wearing them allowed my siblings and I to feel proud and a sense of belonging while we honoured our heritage as Nigerians and Africans as a whole.

But I agree with Granny, traditional African clothing is not just for special occasions; it should be celebrated as a part of everyday life. Whether it's a simple danṣiki shirt or a colourful headwrap, incorporating traditional elements into my wardrobe is a way for me to stay connected to my culture and express my identity proudly.

Final thoughts

Traditional African clothing is a beautiful expression of culture, heritage, and identity. From the vibrant colours and intricate patterns to the deep cultural significance, each garment tells a story of the richness of Africa, Africans and African descendants. By embracing traditional clothing, we celebrate our roots, honour our ancestors, and connect with our cultural heritage in a meaningful way.

young people wearing traditional african clothing
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