East AfricaIn East Africa standards of modesty vary greatly from tribe to tribe and from village life to urban life. A mixture of religions–Christianity, Islam, and traditional religions–have all played a role in shaping current standards of dress, as have environmental conditions and typical occupations in various areas.

In some places, women may go topless and primarily wear beads that mark their status in the society. In other places, women may be fully covered as a sign of respect for their husbands. Some women cover for very practical reasons, like cleanliness or protecting their skin or hair. Some cover out of fear of rape or sexual assault. The buibui, a full black cloak, is only common in Muslim-majority areas along the coast. (See the gallery of buibuis in tabs at bottom). The plethora of reasons for veiling–environmental, political, familial, religious–intertwine in the everyday, and the customs that emerge sometimes grow into distinct markers of various tribes, locations, or classes.

One thing seems common to all–life in East Africa is colorful. Women in most every place don vibrant pieces of printed cotton fabric called kangas. A kanga is a rectangular piece of cloth, about one meter by one-and-a-half meters, which will often have a Swahili proverb printed along one side. Kangas are popular throughout Africa, and they serve a variety of purposes. They can be worn as a skirt, an apron, a sling for carrying a baby, or as a veil to cover the head and shoulders. Girls have a standard way of tying a kanga around their necks, as a sort of halter dress. While formal occasions may call for it, in everyday life, matching isn’t important. A woman may have one kanga for a skirt, a different one tying her baby to her back, and another draped over her head. These bright cloaks make for a festive display. (See the gallery of kangas in tabs at bottom).

 

Veiling among one Muslim-majority tribe, the Digo
Kenya coast
The Digo are one of the Mijikenda (nine tribes) that dwell along the coast. They live in the Kwale district, south of Mombasa.

The majority of East Africa’s population identifies as Christian, but there is a sizeable Muslim minority in Kenya and Tanzania.  Particularly along the Indian Ocean coastline, some entire tribes collectively identify as Muslim (often incorporating Islam with their traditional religious beliefs and practices).  One of those Muslim tribes is the Digo, who dwell south of Mombasa into northern Tanzania. Trading, farming, and fishing are the standard enterprises. Villages are comprised of forty or so huts each, and mosques and madrasas are key centers of community life.

Veiling has become the cultural norm for Digo women, including even the small percentage who do not claim Islam as their religion. They generally cover their heads and shoulders, many their arms and ankles, and a small number their face. Kangas are often employed as a veil, though sometimes women will wear solid colored scarves. For formal occasions, such as weddings and funerals, a Digo woman will carefully select matching kangas to cover herself, head to ankles.In their hot and humid coastal forest, life is lived mostly outdoors. Given the unforgiving realities of village life along the East African coast, standards of modesty do sometimes give way to more practical considerations. Water must be gathered, crops must be farmed, pots must be cleaned, fires must be tended, chickens must be fed, and babies must be nursed. Sometimes such tasks are easier done without the constraints of a veil. (See the gallery of Digo people in tabs at bottom).

In and around the home, heads are often uncovered, and sometimes it is just plain hot enough that a kanga around the chest is more comfortable than one covering head and shoulders. It is rather common to see mothers with shoulders and breasts uncovered to nurse their babies. The absence of adult men in daily village life may allow less restraint in these regards. But these liberties are limited to the village.  When going to market or traveling outside the village, women will fully cover, some including their face, either with kangas or with a black buibui.

Digo husbands and fathers play a large role in determining how much women cover in public life, and Digo women generally understand veiling as a sign of respect (with or without religious significance) for their fathers and husbands. Sexual fear is prevalent, so women are often encouraged to veil for their own protection. Girls typically begin veiling when they enter madrasa, some as early as age six.

 

Veiling in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Zanzibar is an archipelago situated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania.  The Portuguese, the Omanis, and the Brits had controlling interests in Zanzibar until the people gained their independence in 1963. (They soon merged with Tanzania.) The ancient city of Stone Town, located on the main island of Unguja, is a living museum of the remarkable history of this spice island.  The modern culture is unique in Eastern Africa for its mixture of African, Arab, and European influence.

The people of Zanzibar are largely unified by Islam. The call to prayer customarily echoes across the island.  Among the maze of shops and homes lining Stone Town’s narrow alleyways, near the old palaces and forts situated on the town’s outskirts, and along the beaches, the bustling crowds can appear just as Arab as East African.  Women veil, many in buibuis (full black cloaks), men don kofias (embroidered caps), and shoes piled outside of mosques evidence the number of worshippers inside. (See the Zanzibar gallery in tabs at bottom).


A Muslim woman walks along Lamul’s seafront, Kenya. Photo by Nick Leonard (Lonely_Boy on flickr).

 

 

 


Traditional buibui stand, Zanzibar, Lamu. Photo by Lonely Planet Images.

 

 

 

Swahili women in buibuis. Photo by Roland Klemp at Lamu.org

 

 


In this Tanzanian marketplace, women’s tops typically cover their shoulders and upper arms, and skirts or kangas cover their legs well below their knees. Head coverings here are mostly practical rather than religious. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

Kangas in this northern Tanzanian market can be seen in their multifunctionality, as skirts, as aprons, as head wraps, and as a cover for a baby. (The woman on the far left has tied a kanga around her midsection, as a blanket for a baby who is tied on her right hip.) Sometimes kangas even serve as the cloth to cover the ground for displaying one’s wares. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

Kangas in this northern Tanzanian market can be seen in their multifunctionality, as skirts, as aprons, as head wraps, and as a cover for a baby. (The woman on the far left has tied a kanga around her midsection, as a blanket for a baby who is tied on her right hip.) Sometimes kangas even serve as the cloth to cover the ground for displaying one’s wares. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

In this coastal village in Kenya, these girls are veiling at an early age. The black veil on the older child likely indicates that she comes from a religious Muslim family. Note the younger girl’s kanga tied in halter style around her neck and another kanga piled on her head to help balance her packages, freeing at least one hand for her snack. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

This coastal Kenyan woman is likely attending a wedding. Gold earrings and nose piercings are common among women of the coastal Muslim population. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

In this Kenyan madrasa, young ladies sit on the back row and uniformly cover their heads with white veils. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

On this ferry, the only link across the narrow strait between Mombasa and Kenya’s south coast, men and women travel between the city and their villages to buy, sell, trade, and visit. In this urban setting where Christians and Muslims mix, modesty is expected, so women are covered, in varying degrees, in their buibuis or kangas. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

In Zanzibar, this mural depicts a village family, apparently returning home in the evening following a day’s work. The man, presumably the father whose gray beard and walking stick reveal his age, wears a kofia, a hat typically worn by Muslim men in East Africa. Notice the two women, whose kangas serves as halter dresses, a head wrap for balancing the bundle of sticks, and a sling for the baby. Interesting for the Muslim majority island of Zanzibar, shoulders and calves are uncovered in this depiction even though that is not typical for Zanzibari women who, more consistently than anywhere else in East Africa, don buibuis. Photo of poster by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

These Maasai women are participating in a Christian worship service in the Rift Valley of Kenya. For worship, women leave their heads uncovered but fully cloak in kangas, all with primarily red patterns as red is the signature color of the Maasai tribe. The elaborate beaded necklaces are a Maasai trademark. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

Maasai women in Kenya’s Rift valley gather for a feast of goat meat and chapatis following a Christian worship service. Each is adorned with bead jewelry and red kangas, wrapping them as skirts, shawls, and togas. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 


This Maasai grandmother wears a blue dress, but in typical Maasai fashion, covers it with a red kanga as a shawl. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.

 

 

 


Women visiting in a Digo village don their array of colorful kangas. All are covered from head to ankle, including elbows, with the exception of the woman on their far right whose head and upper arms are uncovered, likely indicating that she has been at work around the home. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

Digo women await a wedding feast, each cloaked in their matching kangas. The one exception is the woman on the far right, who is clearly responsible for some of the cooking. Her knees are visible as she sits by the large sufuria (cooking pot). The loosely-draped, non-matching kanga covering her head and shoulders was likely grabbed for modesty in this photo. The sufuria are full of rice, being cooked over fire, seasoned and served with chicken on the metal platters stacked to the right. When the food is ready, platters of rice and chicken will be scattered among the guests. A group will gather around each one, seated on straw mats on the ground, to share in this communal feast. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

A Digo wedding crowd, with the majority of women in sets of matching kangas covered head to ankles. At least one woman is fully veiled in a buibui (back center, just in front of the standing women). Some cover their foreheads and necks, some loosely cover their heads, and at least one woman (front center, just behind the children) has her head uncovered even at a wedding. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.

 

 

 


A Sunday afternoon trip to the beach, where the women talk while the children play in the water and sand. Their bright veils are beautiful against the blue sky and white sand. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

A Sunday afternoon trip to the beach, where the women talk while the children play in the water and sand. Their bright veils are beautiful against the blue sky and white sand. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

A Sunday afternoon trip to the beach, where the women talk while the children play in the water and sand. Their bright veils are beautiful against the blue sky and white sand. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

A Sunday afternoon trip to the beach, where the women talk while the children play in the water and sand. Their bright veils are beautiful against the blue sky and white sand. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

This woman’s blue veil is striking against her black buibui as she walks along the busy Stone Town coastline. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.
 

 

 

In a park outside Stone Town, these two Zanzibari women offer henna tattoos to tourists who visit the island. While both don buibuis, the woman in the front has her head uncovered. As tourism on the island has increased, people from the mainland have made their way to Zanzibar for economic opportunity. Though many of these immigrants are not Muslim, they generally attempt to blend with the local customs of dress. Some women, though, will leave their heads uncovered as a sign of their non-Muslim identity. Photo by Kimberly Samuel.

 

 

 


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