Wearing my headphones, I hopped onto public transport. Peaking my head up as soon as I left, I was surprised by the passengers staring at me. It was as if I had committed a grave mistake. Followed by their gaze, I took a step back to review my stance. It had only been few seconds before I knew the reason for their stares. A passenger next to me asked about my shirt’s name, I instantly replied, “dashiki”. He looked away, utterly confused by the word.
Known as the Kongolian outfit in Sudan, the dashiki or bobo is a form of customary attire native to West-Africa that has been historically worn as the official outfit by a collective of Sudanese tribes. Yet, after having been featured on high-fashion catwalks and worn by public figures around the world, this traditional form of dress has transcended into a universal style. It’s first prominent appearance or better yet, the ‘dashiki’s first global debut’, was during the late seventies civil rights movement when the ‘hippies’ invaded the U.S capital of Washington D.C dressed in their bright, colorful African shirts challenging the government’s “plain” colors. Ever since, these traditional outfits have been intricately linked to movements of revolution and resistance as well as LGBT rights and efforts to legalize marijuana within some preserved communities— mine own as an evident example. And most recently, in the capital of Khartoum, it has become very common to see dashiki’s worn on the streets by people of all genders— in addition to young adults, the educated, the civil rights movement parts of society as well as film makers and journalists alike— as a sign of silent rebellion and liberation from the all too oppressing forces of government.
Since 1989, the Islamo-Arabian culture has been depreciated in many aspects of the country, mainly the media –highlighting its official channels- , As a result, it is the white dress (jalabeya) and the white head turban (emma) that are considered the official traditional clothing of a fully diverse country, neglecting a great load of traditional clothing, specially the African-based ones. The country is now dyed in one ethnicity, the Arabic ethnicity.
While my friends often make fun of my outfits and refer to them as ‘the uniform of resistance,’ here in Sudan, the dashiki is now being worn by artists, literates, and society figures at public appearances in spite of the fact that audiences are typically uptight towards dress code and social presentation.
Exemplary examples include the father of Sudanese jazz, Sharhabeel as well as the famous poet, Alem Abbas. Yet, the most notable dashiki wearer may be poet and politico, Salah Ahmed Ibrahim, who founded “The School of Jungle and Desert” and questioned Sudanese identity when he asked, “are we Arabs, or is it that we are Africans”. Salah, to which the dashiki was a symbol of rebellion, famously wore the traditional garb as he read his poems and criticized the previous president “Jaafer Nimeri” during an interview.
Yet amid the turbulent division of North and South Sudan, the dashiki and other forms of traditional African garb were met with widespread public criticism, to the extent that students and faculty at Bahri University were once prohibited from wearing customary African outfits.
Though despite these ongoing cycles of cultural rejection and acceptance in Sudan, the dashiki continues to be worn as a symbol of African pride. From well known journalist, Omer Al-haj, who says, the “kangolian is of Kongo and Kongo is an African country… and I am African,” to the famous local band, Eikd Al-jalad, which debuted bright green bobos as a way to signify their respect for Sudanese diversity, the dashiki style continues to spread.
Reminding us of the writings and poems of the “School of the Jungle and Desert”, the dashiki is a symbol of African pride as well as a tribute to the colorful heritage of African fabrics. It is an emblem for youth as they become empowered by their “Africanism” and shout, “is it not the time for the culture of the jungle?”.