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A stitch in time: The Indian roots of Uganda's gomesi

Her vintage parlour, overlooking the circuitous succulents in the garden, would fit right into a Dicken’s novel. Photo frames and plaques tell stories of a life well spent. Joyce Mpanga (84) has been part of Ugandan politics since the 1960s, a member of Parliament (MP) and deputy headmistress at the prestigious Gayaza High School. She also travelled to the US to pursue a master’s degree in education from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1961, a path trodden by few. 

But what she enjoys most is sharing stories of Ugandan culture. Like the one about how a pair of Goan tailors changed the social fabric of Uganda—literally.

“We used to wear a suuka, which was initially made from bark cloth, and then modified to cotton. It was a piece wrapped around your chest, with something to cinch it at the waist,” she says.

But in 1905, Mpanga says, when the Church Missionary Society (CMS) started Gayaza, an all-girl boarding school, the suuka did not find favour with the missionaries. (Incidentally, the CMS supposedly set up the school after it started a school for boys in Mengo, Kampala, so that the educated boys could find educated girls to marry.) And so, the Gomes brothers were called in to design a uniform—one that would go on to become Uganda's de facto national dress.

“The school was headed by women who were Victorian. Bare shoulders were frowned upon. Plus, the suuka would often come undone when the girls did any physical work. So, the first British headmistress, Alfreda Allen, called for a Goan tailor, Gomes. They came up with the idea of wearing a bolero over the suuka. But this was inconvenient too. Then Gomes started stitching this bolero over the suuka, this is the style we still follow. The puffed sleeves is a Victorian influence on the dress,” says Mpanga.

It is believed that Allen invited the older of the two Gomes brothers, Anton Gloria, to discuss the design for the uniform. It was his idea to add a yoke to the dress, to address the problem of unraveling. Later, the younger brother, Caetano Milagres, added a sash around the waist, which is still part of the current design.

The gomesi (also called the busuuti), named after its Goan inventor, today is very important, both socially and culturally, in Uganda.

“The gomesi is a mark of respect, and must be worn at all social engagements, such as kwanjula (an introduction ceremony before marriage), marriage, funeral or even when you are meeting elders in the family,” says Florence Kiwanuka, speaker at the Parliament of the Buganda Kingdom, adding that she remembers an introduction ceremony that went awry because a young girl from the entourage had not worn a gomesi.

Maggi Kigozi, the face of Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) for more than a decade, has slightly different take. The  gomesi, stitched up to seven metres of cloth, isn't the most convenient form of clothing, bordering on the unmanageable, says Kigozi, clad in one of her bespoke suits (many from India). Nevertheless, she is extremely proud of her Baganda roots.

“The significance of the gomesi became more pronounced after our kabaka (king) returned from exile. The dress is beautiful and elegant, and portrays the African culture. Today, gomesis are better colour-coordinated, and even have matching buttons and accessories,” says Kigozi.

In addition to the six-odd metres used for the dress, there is an additional layer forming the base, which is the traditional Ugandan kikoyi fabric.

Joyce Sebugwawo, mayor of one of five divisions of the Kampala Capital City Authority, says, “You tie a kikoy, or maybe two, under the gomesi to give you better shape, since it makes your hips look broader. It is a unique dress, and a matter of respect in our culture. The process of wearing a gomesi can be cumbersome, so you have to really believe in your culture to wear it everyday."

Sebugwawo has worn a gomesi every single day, to work and to every social gathering, since 1994, because she wanted to "preserve her culture, and lead by example".

For Celestine Katongole, a lecturer at Makerere University Business School and founder of Sights & Sounds of Africa Safaris, the gomesi is synonymous with his mother.

“All her life, from the time I first saw her till she passed on, my mother wore a gomesi. What is so clear to me, even years after her passing, her gomesi was our blanket at night for a long time. To me, the gomesi was much more than just my mother’s dress, it was a source of warmth at night, and a piece that raised us,” says Katongole.

According to him, not wearing a gomesi is almost considered "indecent" by some in Ugandan society. However, Katongole also says he's seen a decline in its popularity, especially among the younger generation.

“As a product, the gomesi could have gone through introduction, growth (in use), reached maturity and could be declining. As the world gets globalized, gomesi may eventually disappear, suggesting a need for rethinking how it can stay relevant,” he says.

Nishitha Shrivastava is a freelance writer based in Kampala, Uganda. Her Twitter handle is@nnair18

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