Clothing in pre-colonial Africa…insight into nudity claims


WHAT did Africans use as clothing before the coming of whites? 

Most white scholars claim Africans moved around half naked, with minimal clothing which only covered their private parts.

This largely fictitious depiction of Africans as savage, uncivilised and animal like beings was particularly sold to black slaves in the Americas and is now misconstrued as historical fact by Africans themselves.

In Western films, Africans are portrayed as such, with blackman exposing their buttocks and women their breasts.

While there were and continue to be some isolated and often nomadic groups in Africa that dressed this way, it is inaccurate and not objective to paint all of the ancient Africans as such.

The perverted minds of whites feast with excitement on the partial nudity found among the Swazi, Namu and Khoi among other groups.

However, in Zimbabwe, most people have been wholly covered even long before the coming of whites.

Based on the archeological findings of weaving jenny components in Mapungubwe and Madzimbahwe there is certainty that cotton weaving was practiced in South Africa and Zimbabwe between 700 CE and 1300 CE.

Weaving jenny components can still be found lying around in those ancient monuments to date. 

When early European explorers came to Zimbabwe centuries after this period, they found wild cotton growing.

In the 1890s Zimbabweans were wearing clothes made of skins, fur, bark cloth and also cotton cloth. 

They had largely ceased growing and weaving cotton into cloth and had resorted to importing cloth from the Arabs and Portuguese at markets such as Sofala.

However, they would spin cotton and other fibres into rope locally.

The skins, fur and bark cloth clothing was also fashioned locally along with copper bracelets. Together, with the imported cloth and beads, most Zimbabweans were clothes wearers from several centuries ago.

Before the Portuguese came in the 1500s, Arabians from trade harbours like Sena, Tarim and Sayhut brought cotton cloth to the east African coast, along with wine, iron tools, weapons, beads and pipes to Sofala in exchange for cattle, gold, copper, grain, hardwood and wild animals from the prosperous hinterland.

Zimbabweans would travel far and wide with their livestock, gold and other goods on demand and would return with clothing among other things.

Chinese silk along with coins and ceramics were brought into Zimbabwe before and during the Mutapa and Changamire periods.

Mwenemutapa was depicted by the Portuguese as a black man with extravagant clothing that was more lavish than that of the average Portuguese.

He jointly wore Arabian, Indian and Chinese fabrics, and incorporated traditional ornaments with the ensemble. 

The average Zimbabwean man wore skin, cloth or bark cloth bottoms. 

They would often wear an open cloth or animal hide on top that they would tie on their shoulders. They often wore hand bracelets and necklaces with or without pendants.

Zimbabwean women wore skirts made of cloth or bark cloth, some with elaborate designs. These were similar to the zambia but often shorter in length.

They also wore cloth which they would tie behind their backs to cover their belly and breasts. 

On top of that they wore some long cloth which they would cover their backs with or tie over one shoulder and was similar to a chari

Older women often wore the latter without the inner top because it could still cover much of the upper body.

Young Zimbabwean women had numerous hair styles, wore plenty neck, wrist,  foot bracelets and necklaces. The only body part which was commonly nude in both Zimbabwean males and females were the feet. 

However, when travelling long distance they often wore sandals of skin called nyatera

For ages nudity (kushama), even in its partiality, had become taboo for most Zimbabweans. This is evidenced by the number of derogatory Shona words that were used to describe a nude person. 

For instance mupunumunu, musundu, mushutu, mushwi, mupushu and mutwi

Yet we have names for sexual organs,  in chiShona, they are often censored in regular speech and replaced by the word chinhu which simply means thing. 

This is different from whites who loosely verbalise the names of private parts in English, showing that their culture did not find nudity as disturbing as our ancestors did.

In times of marriage, our ancestors covered the bride and groom in cloth and the bride would not even show her face as it would be covered in a veil.

Even after the ceremony, a man would wear a long cloth to cover his knees and another his elbows when meeting his wife’s mother (Ambuya). 

If these requirements were overlooked the groom’s party would be liable for a fine called chibinge.

To emulate these traditional feats, the Shona still demand the man to wear a trousers instead of shorts when seeing his wife’s mother and a blazer when attending marriage formalities like masungiro.

The disdain towards nudity that we currently have was inherited from our ancestors.

The skin bottom or nhembe that whites claim we wore which completely exposes the man’s buttocks was worn not by the direct ancestors of the Shona, but by earlier groups like the Bushmen who long emigrated to areas around Botswana and Namibia.

On some ancient maps made by Moors in Europe, there are depictions of a black king in Zimbabwe sitting on a fancy throne, wearing a full gown, turban, jewelry and sandals and holding a scepter. Alongside him are depictions of blacks with shirt locks wearing skins and bearing livestock.

These Bantu nhembe covered both sides, front and back and carried slits that would cause the bottom to flap over a fastened cloth underwear.

In West Africa, the traditional clothing was weaved locally in places like Ghana, Senegal and Mali. 

It is similar to the contemporary West African clothing which comprises of a vest, tunic, gown, sandals and kaffir.

In Ethiopia and Sudan, they wore plain gowns, sandals and turbans. 

Ironically, the few groups which walk around fully or partially nude are mostly found in places around Ethiopia, particularly among forest inhabitants and nomads.

In Kenya, groups like the Masai wore a signature red cloth and were very much decorated with paints and bead jewellery. 

Evidently, most Africans were civilised long before the whites came. 

They resided in organised settlements which had cultivation, livestock rearing, weaving, smelting and construction activities.

When the Portuguese came, they found a thriving trade market between southern Arabs and southern Africans. 

Indians too would sail to this market area with their goods for trade, and these would end up in the hands of the locals of the hinterland.

The Mwenye people who were ancestors of the Remba were descendants of the southern Arabians. 

They were black and the weaving, beading and construction methods and technology they used in Saba (Yemen) were identical to those of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe.

Clothes were called nguwo or nhumbi till the coming of the Dutch who brought hemp fabric to the region. 

Zimbabweans found it durable and imported so much hemp fiber for clothing that clothing became known as hembe (hemp).

By the time the British came, Zimbabweans from the young to the aged were fully dressed, all this despite the regression that ensued after the primal era of Great Zimbabwe passed.

Colonisation, war and consequent poverty would disturb the local clothing industry and the traditional trade markets to a point that people eventually had to rely on western clothing. 

Even today we do not produce enough because of imported bails or mabhero of clothing, people opt to wear clothing styles that are available as opposed to styles that they design or prefer.


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