The Fine Line: African Attire & African Leaders

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“…traditional attire express our relationship with out communities, societies and our continent.”

Almost 11 years ago, Nov 17, 2007 to be exact, I met an incredible individual at the African Union (AU) Diaspora Ministerial Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. We were there in different capacities but on the same mission, to review and consolidate the draft Programme of Action in relation to the AU decision to recognize Africans in the Diaspora as the Sixth Region. Agenda items included Peace and Stability; Historic socio-cultural and religious commonalities; Women, Youth and Vulnerable groups and Economic Cooperation amongst others. Thirty-nine member states including Benin, Ghana and Ethiopia were present along with CARICOM representatives. Unlike most Ministerial meetings, Diaspora Communities and Civil Society organizations fully participated, even presenting papers. I was one of such.
I remember being seated next to the then Honorable Minister of Health, Dr. Dlamini Nksozana Zuma, who would go on to serve as AU Chairperson 2012-2017. I prepared with laser focus to present on Women and Youth to a room of distinguished African representatives who, sad to say, were almost indistinguishable, as most were in suits. I was dressed in traditional Ethiopia attire at this august event and began by giving a history of African Diaspora engagement, referencing Ethiopia’s track record as evidenced by Ethiopian World Federation who raised funds and awareness to end Italian occupation in the Diaspora. I also spoke of the defeat of foreign forces under the direction of Emperor Menelik II with Empress Taitu by his side, yielding victory at the Battle of Adwoa, a watershed moment in the history of Pan Africanism.
After my presentation, I had the opportunity to meet the Head of Delegation for Ethiopia. While moved by my presentation, the crux of the conversation was also on my attire, habesha libs. I imagine it was strange as most such meetings find men and women in 99.9% Brooks Brothers type suits. Beyond that important exchange on culture and attire, the Minister expressed interest in our advocacy for re-integration and offered to meet with me upon return to Addis Ababa. The Minister’s word was kept and the good Office was open for us to voice our concerns on the status of People of African descent, Rastafari in particular, living peacefully in Ethiopia, most undocumented, including children turned adults born in Shashamane.
I would see the Minister occasionally, who always recalled my name and face amongst the sea of people dealt with daily, much more over a decade. Respect. We even ran into each other a week ago and tried to catch up in a sweet 2-minute exchange, as we were both with other parties. But back to African leaders and cultural attire… What is the message and significance, if any, about cultural attire worn or not worn by Africa’s representatives at meetings in Africa? In a time when Africa is rising and borders are collapsing, allowing for free movement of trade and commerce, is not the movement of art, ideas and culture equally important? Does not our cultural attire have a place, making a statement as to our history, identity and trajectory? Should leaders not have an inclination or at least the conscience to wear the expressions of our artisans and designers, often? Haven’t our artists provided African designs and clothing that speak to our resources, processes, creativity and narratives? Doesn’t our traditional attire express our relationship with out communities, societies and our continent? Most of all shouldn’t our attire give leaders a sense of strength, comfort and connectivity to the people they represent?
Eleven years later in 2018, update on the Diaspora integration: a majority of African countries have offices for Diaspora affairs; Benin and Ghana have issued citizenship to scores; and Ethiopia has granted over 250 ID’s to Rastafari of African descent as Foreign National of Ethiopian Origin. Sadly, I cannot report that African Leaders are wearing cultural attire more often, but can report that the AU encourages traditional wear on Friday. Side Note: In the West corporations offer dress down day to jeans and such on Fridays, this cannot compare to Traditional attire, but I think the intent deserves credit. I therefore leave it to our esteemed leaders to decide when to wear traditional clothing but urge consideration to honor and promote the creativity of African artists and designers while sharing culture, history and identity. Photos speak volumes and what will generations to come think as they reflect on these optics a hundred years from now? Shall our children see so us today and in turn love their culture and clothing tomorrow and not beg for brands that fuel other people’s economy?
This splendor of African attire from kente to kuba cloth and ashoke to saba is unlimited. And just as our weavers prepare these cloths with great care and pride, let us wear them proudly as we promote our country, continent and diverse cultures. By the way, the Minister I keep referring to is none other than our newly appointed President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia H.E. Ambassador Sahle-Work Zewde, who wore cultural attire to her swearing in ceremony.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and
cultural promoter based in Ethiopia
since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to
the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora
African Forum.