January 2009

Day January 8, 2009

”Gomesi” as a national dress of Uganda?

 1/8 Gomesi started being with us in 1940s when it was adapted as the dress for boarding schools in Uganda, starting with Gayaza.  Gayaza, as we know was founded by Christian missionaries ‘…to train girls especially the daughters of chiefs in those skills that would make them better wives’. 


 2/8 Initially, the ladies of the school donned the basic Kiganda ladies’ attire of the day: a sheet of cotton cloth wrapped around the breasts and tied to the waist with a smaller strip of cloth.  This left much of the torso exposed and there were often some accidents with that attire especially when the ladies went to work in the school shambas.  The missionary tutors found the exposure of the ladies’ torsos and breasts indecent and sought to craft a dress code that was a compromise of their own fashions and the bed sheet-like sash with which the ‘natives’ draped themselves (see attached picture, from Speke’s journal of the ‘discovery’ of the Nile). 


3/8 They enlisted the services of a tailor from Gayaza trading centre, an Indian called Fernando Gomes.  Mr Gomes was from Goa, an Indian province formally under the Portuguese.  The people there like Mr Gomes and the Pintos, Almeidas etc adopted Portuguese names. 


4/8 In designing the new Gayaza uniform, Mr Gomes maintained the extravagant sash, very much like the oriental Kimono or West African Obi that was to form a massive skirt.  On to this, he stitched a quasi blouse with a square neck with two buttons opening on the left.  The new dress was named after him, hence, gomesi.  This became the first uniform for all girls in boarding schools (hence ‘boodingi’) and when they went back home for holidays, the traditional authorities were impressed by the new fashion, turning it into the ‘traditional’ dress. 


5/8 Mr Gomes was later to be evicted from Gayaza by the Anti-Asian rioters in the late 1940s.  A fifth generation Indian Raj Vajrakaya Gomez has recently come up to claim that he is a grandchild of Gomes and wants the ‘bodingi’ to be patented to benefit the family of its designer.  His claim can however be doubted because his name, Gomez is Spanish where as the Portuguese version given to the Goans has a letter‘s’. 


6/8 The gomesi dress symbolises the ostentation and conspicuous display and extravagancy of feudal society where value for money is an alien concept.  From one gomesi, a contemporary designer can make at least 3 size 12 ladies’ dresses….let alone the ‘Kikoyi’, and ‘Kitambala’ that accompany that courtly attire. 


7/8 The gomesi can only be a ‘national dress’ (hopefully for ladies only) if the nation’s life is going to be confined to the slothfulness, lethargy, flamboyance, splendour and vanity of the feudal court.  An active, productive, non-parasitic, bi-cycle riding, boda-boda mobile female population cannot manage in that cumbersome garb.  A mukiga lady will not wear it, and never wears it, and in much of the West, the less cumbersome two-piece dress and sheet remains popular: it makes it easy to shed off the sheet, which for the gomesi, is the entire garb.  



8/8 To think that ‘Gomesi’ is a traditional dress is a bit problematic when we do not even have a vernacular name for it and at the very moment when some of us are agitating for a ‘national’ language.  Looking at the name Gomes itself, its Portuguese origin makes the naming of the attire for our women even more problematic.  Gomes or Gomez in Spanish derives from ‘Guma’ meaning a man or male, or masculine….i.e., Mwami/Ejakait/Ladit.  A name that refers to masculinity, for a dress that embodies femininity is a comical contradiction in terms! 

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