Controversy surrounds Kenya's parliament ban on ‘Kaunda suits’ and African traditional attire

President William Ruto wearing a Kuanda suit. Screenshot from YouTube video, ‘UDA MP Kicked out of Parliament for wearing Ruto's clothes‘ on Emqba News. Fair use.

On Tuesday, November 28, Kenya's parliament made a controversial decision to prohibit the wearing of the Kaunda suit and African traditional attire. The Kaunda suit, named after the late Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, is one of President William Ruto’s signature outfits.

Kenya's parliament has previously engaged in discussions about dress code. In November 2020, a ruling was made allowing legislators to dress in traditional African attire in the parliament's debate chambers. This decision represented a noteworthy shift in the dress code policy, signalling the recognition and incorporation of African cultural heritage. This has now been overturned.

Parliament Speaker Moses Wetangula outlined the “appropriate dress code for members of parliament.” For men, he lists coats, collars, ties, long-sleeved shirts, long trousers, socks, shoes, or service uniforms as appropriate attire. For women, the code prohibits sleeveless blouses and sets standards for the length of skirts and dresses, which must be under the knee and “decent.” Notably, traditional attire, including the Kaunda suit, has been excluded from the approved dress code. As explained by the Speaker, the ban was prompted by emerging fashion trends that were perceived to challenge the established parliamentary dress code. 

The Kaunda suit, distinguished by its safari jacket, and often paired with matching pants, has a history dating back to the 19th century, and was popularized by Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first post-colonial president. As stated on Syowia Kyambi's website, in the 1960s, during the era of African independence movements, influential figures, including Sam Nujoma and Julius Nyerere wore the Kaunda suit.

Kaunda credited Nyerere with giving the outfit its name. Kaunda may also have been inspired by the People's Republic of China's iconic founder, Mao Zedong, whose style of tunic — and ideology — Kaunda admired. Fittingly, the outfit is also called the “Mao suit,” though it was originally introduced by Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and known as the Zhongshan suit. Similar suits were also worn by leaders, intellectuals and socialists in many parts of the world, including Australia and Western Europe.

By wearing the Kaunda suit, these leaders were promoting an ideology of solidarity and emphasizing a sense of selfhood that was distinct from Western influences. This suggests that the Kaunda suit was seen as a symbol of African identity and a rejection of Western cultural dominance. 

Kenya's President William Ruto is frequently seen wearing a stylish Kaunda suit during official events, contributing to its popularity among the country's political elite. In an interview with TV47, Ruta's official tailor, Ashok Sunny, said that Ruto's choice to wear the Kaunda suit was a show of support for the local industry and Kenyan-made clothing, endorsing the talents of those creating garments while embracing African culture. However, Sunny acknowledged that others perceived it as a “dictator” look because “most old dictators” have worn similar outfits.

Nevertheless, the ban has suggested a different narrative, leading to dissatisfaction among numerous African social media users. Many are now questioning why African attire is restricted in an African parliament. 

One YouTube user commented on a video by Make Afrika Great, expressing frustration: 

Isn't it enough that we are still speaking the languages of our oppressors? What is wrong with Africa, my God? How can the parliament ban our traditional clothes? That is our identity and culture. Look to the Arabians, they do not use westerns clothes, but their cultural clothes. It's very sad. The Kenyan people must come on the streets and protest against this decision.

The decision has ignited a broader conversation about cultural representation and self-respect. One X (formerly Twitter) user said:

This move away from our roots and towards colonial norms suppresses our identity. We must embrace our culture, not restrict it. We can not continue to appease the west just so we can be recognised on the global stage. 

Other social media users argue that embracing African traditional clothing is a means of seeking identity and celebrating African styles, suggesting that such a ban contradicts this sentiment.

Some question whether Africa can garner respect globally if it does not honor its own traditional clothing, while a few humorously speculate that the Kaunda suit might now be reserved exclusively for President Ruto. This idea started to gain traction recently when a member of parliament from the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) was expelled from the chamber for wearing a Kaunda suit.

As advocates argue for the introduction of diverse clothing styles that authentically represent African culture on the global stage, it remains a decision within the government's authority, guided by existing laws from colonial times.

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