THE ORIGIN OF THE GOMESI/BUSUUTI


From Uganda's telephone directory, 1977

From Uganda’s telephone directory, 1977


By John Nazareth – Mississauga, ON

The Gomesi or Busuuti (as the dress is alternatively known) is the defacto national dress of Uganda. It is an elegant and colourful floor-length dress. However, up to now anyone who peruses through the web for the origins of the dress would be unclear as to when it was designed – dates vary between 1905 and the 1940s – and who exactly designed it other than it was a man called Gomes. When Ella and John Gomes asked me to write an article about the Gomesi and the part played by their father, Caetano Milagres Gomes (CM), I thought that it was all quite straightforward. Instead, it turned out to be a detective story and the process of finding out turned out to be quite exciting. So come and journey with me.

When was it designed and by whom?

The story starts out with the birth of Gayaza High School[1] in 1905 and Miss Alfreda Allen, the Headmistress asking a tailor, Mr. Gomes to design a uniform for her girls.

Reading through an article based on an interview with CM Gomes[2], he appeared to be unclear about whether it was he or his elder brother Anton Gloria Gomes (AG), both of whom were working together, who designed the dress. CM recalled that it was his elder brother AG who talked to Miss Allen as AG was already stitching uniforms for Gayaza when CM first came to Kampala to join his brother in 1908. But in that same interview his memory gave indirect clues as to when and how the dress came to be.

So the earliest that the Gomesi could have been designed was in 1905 as that was when Gayaza High School opened. However, Gayaza first used the “suuka”[3] [4] made of bark-cloth as a school dress in 1905. Furthermore AG Gomes first came to Uganda from Goa India in 1905 as well, and would have just started his tailoring business, so it is unlikely that it was designed then. Sometime between 1905 and 1908 Ms Allen approached AG Gomes to make a “suuka” of cotton as it was more durable. The next phase came to resolve the problem of the “suuka” unraveling when the students were doing manual work, so Miss Allen sought a better design to preserve the modesty of the pupils[5]. AG did that by adding a yoke to the design[6].

In the interview[7] with CM Gomes, he recalled clearly that the Gomesi did not become popular with the masses until the wife of Kabaka Daudi Chwa II wore it for the Kabaka’s coronation – and it was he that had stitched her dress. That the Kabaka’s future wife, Irene Drusilla Namaganda, came to Gomes to stitch her dress was not as surprising as it may seem. According to Cox et al “… and when the Kabaka was looking for a wife, it was to Gayaza that he came …”[8] As a former student of Gayaza, Miss Namaganda would have known the Gomes brothers well.

The Gomesi has some aspects of Victorian/Edwardian dresses (those puffed sleeves) and some aspects of the sari that Gomes was familiar with from his homeland – Goa, India. A sash was also added around the waist to accentuate the feminine figure. The embellishment of the original school uniform would only make sense – if the Kabaka’s queen was going to use it, CM wanted something special.

Kabaka Chwa’s coronation took place in 1914 and hence it is this year that should be honoured as the birth-year of the Gomesi/ Busuuti.

The Names – Gomesi/Busuuti

The name Gomesi is obviously associated with the name of its designer, Mr. Gomes. Originally the dress used to be called Teitei Gomesi[9] – the Gomes dress (“teitei” being the Swahili word for dress or gown). Over time people dropped “teitei” and Gomesi it was.

The name “Bodingi” has also been used[10], a name that probably came from the fact that Gayaza was a Boarding School. This name was likely more associated with the school uniform than the fully matured Gomesi dress design, but it is still occasionally used.

The origins of the associate name “Busuuti” (or as is sometimes heard, “Basuti”) is a story in itself. To speculate on the name “Busuuti”, “suuti” could easily be a borrowed equivalent of “suit”. Bantu languages will often add an “i” at the end of the borrowed word, e.g. in Swahili → askari, [motor] car – “gari”. And just as “Bu” in front of the root word “Ganda” denotes the place of the Ganda people, (and similarly with Bugisu, Busoga etc..) “Busuuti” may have originally designated the “home of this [special] suit” – the Gomes’ tailor shop. After some time of calling the Gomes’ store Busuuti, the name may have passed on to the suit-dress itself. Alternatively, the term “Basuti” could have designated the women who used this special suit. In time the term may have passed on to the dress. There is still scope for more digging here.

Is the Gomesi/Busuuti Truly Ugandan?

Was the Gomesi designed by a foreigner? If you know the Gomeses, they were close to their customers who were British, Asians and Africans. The history of the Goan people[11] is that they have been a multicultural community for a thousand years – and that is why Goans fitted so well with the society in Uganda. Like many Indian peoples who lived in Uganda prior to the 1972 Expulsion, the Gomeses became Ugandans. 1972 was a heartbreak for the Gomeses, not because they lost property, but because they lost home (Uganda) and so many [African] friends.

Politics aside, the Busuuti’s design had many influences including British and Indian. However, the base design started with the suuka and CM must have had some inputs from the Kabaka’s future queen. The two brothers may have exchanged ideas about the design, but CM would have had the greatest influence as he finally stitched it. Culture is not static – British culture was formulated by numerous peoples that invaded it. Likewise Uganda took many influences at the time. Perhaps a large cross-section of Ugandans embraced the Gomesi because of the many influences that came together to create the unique design within its borders and so it became one of the icons of a new nation.

So the design of the dress came about because history brought together the Gomes brothers, Miss Allen and Miss Namaganda – and CM Gomes had the honour of stitching that first dress. It is possible that designed evolved further after 1914.

The Gomes Brothers and Their Descendants

A short history of the Gomes’ Tailors shop – AG Gomes came to Uganda in 1905 and started a tailoring business in the corner of a store in the district of Mengo. In 1908, after CM Gomes joined his brother, a store was opened under the sign-board “A.G. Gomes & Brother”[12]. AG Gomes died in 1928, leaving the business and his three children in the care of his brother CM Gomes. AG’s wife also died suddenly, three months after her husband. During the Second World War the Gomes shop stitched uniforms for the resident British soldiers. Gayaza’s uniforms were all stitched at the store for many years. In 1918, the store moved to Kampala Road opposite the Uganda Herald office. The final location was on Kampala Road opposite the Kampala Institute. After two robberies at the store, the business closed down in the late 1960’s.
gomesi

CM Gomes sailed on a dhow from Goa, India across the Indian Ocean to Mombasa. From there he took the train to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. From Kisumu he travelled on a boat (slightly larger than a canoe) across Lake Victoria to Port Bell in Uganda. From there he travelled, with very little luggage, on a rickshaw to central Kampala. As an attachment to the old country, he carried in a bag on his back a large clock, which hung on his wall for decades.

CM Gomes had five children. Among them, Roger was probably the best known because he was an accomplished Field Hockey player, playing for the illustrious Sikh Union (later Simba Union), representing Uganda between 1954 and 1971, and being a Sports Anchor on UTV. As National Executive Secretary, he was instrumental in the organizational process of getting the Uganda team a place in the 1972 Olympics. As a professional trainer at Kyambogo Teachers’ Training College (now Kyambogo University), he organized the training camp that resulted in the selection of the team and was its trainer until R.S. Gentle took on the position of coach. CM’s daughter Ella also represented Uganda in Women’s Field Hockey.

In 1972 during the Expulsion of Asians from Uganda, CM Gomes and his children Marcella and Mathew (now deceased), Roger and Ella (and later his son John) moved to Toronto, Canada to join his daughter Julie who had married John D’Sa and moved there a few years earlier. CM’s wife Anna had died in Kampala in 1955. CM Gomes died in Toronto in 1981. Besides his six children, he had six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, all of whom live in Canada.

AG Gomes and his wife Felecidade had 3 children Joseph, Placido and Antoinette – all of whom have passed away. He has nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren that live across the United Kingdom, Kenya and the USA.

The Gomes family members were very proud and honoured at hearing that a postage stamp had been issued in Uganda in December 2007 to celebrate the “Gomesi”.

A personal note

I am grateful to Ella, John, Julie and Roger Gomes who shared all their memorabilia and notes on their father with me. It meant so much to me to reconnect with Uganda as I have always considered part of myself as African Ugandan.


John H. R. Nazareth

Mississauga, Canada

April 2010

———————-

[1] Gayaza High School was formed as a boarding school for girls by Anglican lay missionaries. As a coincidence, my wife Cynthia attended Gayaza in the late 1960s and through the research for this article I was both able to find for her a copy of the history of her school and get her in touch with one of her favourite former teachers, Miss Sheelagh Warren.

[2] A short interview by the Uganda Argus with Mr. CM Gomes in December 1967.

[3] “Gayaza High School – The First Ninety Years” – Edited by Joan Cox, Brenda Richards and Sheelagh Warren.

[4] Also, interesting letter by Mr. S. J. Luyimbazi-Zake’s letter to Uganda Argus in December 1967.

[5] Ibid Fooftnote 3.

[6] According to Ella Gomes, this is what her father told her.

[7] Ibid Footnote 2 plus recollections from Ella and John Gomes.

[8] Ibid Footnote 3.

[9] CM Gomes’ eldest son Roger remembers this well.

[10] Ibid Footnote 4.

[11] “Of umbrellas, goddesses & dreams – Essays on Goan Culture and Society” – Professor of Anthropology, Robert Newman, formerly of Latrobe University, Australia.

[12] It was formally established several years later in 1918 – see letterhead.

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