Dressing sexuality? Busuuti, ssuuka, kanzu and their positions in the power hierarchy

This post is a section from Amanda Tumusiime*’s thesis ART AND GENDER: IMAG[IN]ING THE NEW WOMAN IN CONTEMPORARY UGANDAN ART that she has generously allowed us to reproduce here.

The Makerere University Main Library has preserved an interesting photograph (1903) which alludes to Uganda’s early dress codes while raising the issue of colonial [im]modesty which is relevant to my debate. Taken in the early twentieth century, the photo depicts a Ugandan missionary, Ruth Hurditch towering above a group of African girls holding pieces of paper to their chests. Hurditch was a member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and arrived in Uganda in the 1870s. In 1902, she married Arthur Bryan Fisher, another member of the CMS and taught in different Ugandan schools before she retired in England in 1914 where she died in 1955. It can be deduced from her career that the photograph depicts Hurditch with her students, although the symbolism of the pieces of white paper remains unexplained, it is unclear where the photograph was taken and to which school the girls belonged.

The photograph captures Hurditch and the young girls posed in a tableau, motionless, with a static gaze, rendering the whole composition frozen in space and time. The composition and contrasting tones permit us to easily contrast a European missionary instructor with her African students. She dominates the space with her Victorian dress code inscribed in a hat, gloves and a neat long-sleeved dress. She sharply contrasts with her African students wrapped in stiff material, probably bark cloth, with their full round breasts uncovered, save for one girl on the extreme right of the picture who is draped in a cotton cloth running to her ankles in a manner that resembles a ssuuka.

Ssuuka derives from the Swahili word shuka, which means cotton cloth (Kivubiro 1998:227). Cotton cloth came to Uganda in the middle of the eighteenth century when the Arab traders started to explore the East African hinterland for ivory and slaves. The introduction of cotton cloth led to the development of the kanzu and the ssuuka. The kanzu is donned by men. Made of white cotton cloth, it is a collarless, long-sleeved shirt worn to cover the entire body. Kivubiro argues that on the advent of colonialism, the British introduced a ‘European coat as [a] formal and respectable’ dress code (Kivubiro 1998:228). The coat began to symbolise elitism, formality, civilisation and respect – in short, modesty. Kivubiro further explains that by 1905, the coat had been added to the kanzu and adopted as the formal attire for the Baganda elites.


Men (one of whom is Buganda Premier, Peter Mayiga) wearing kanzus

The ssuuka was used in a manner which recalled the use of bark cloth to which I referred earlier. Women wrapped their bodies in cotton cloth from below the armpits downwards to the ankles and fastened it at the waist with a belt, like the girl we see to the extreme right of Hurditch’s photograph. As we notice in the photograph, breasts and arms remained exposed. This exposure of the upper body, however, contravened the norms of colonial modesty as defined by the metropolis.

Alfreda Allen, headmistress of Gayaza School, argued that the girls were barely clothed and hence indecent (Kivubiro 1998: 227). Consequently, she innovatively transformed the ssuuka into the busuuti to offer the girls some decorum, and to redefine and capture the notions of colonial modesty. As Kivubiro writes, ‘a Victorian bodice was added to [the suuka] by the Anglican missionary teachers to enable students to cover their upper bodies particularly their breasts, considered indecent by the Europeans’ (Kivubiro 1998:228).

The busuuti became Gayaza’s school uniform.

Amelia Kyambadde, wearing a busuuti

Amelia Kyambadde, wearing a busuuti


Unlike the ssuuka, the busuuti has a square neck, and short sleeves. It is worn to cover the upper body and the arms down to the elbows. It is wrapped around the body to the ankle and fastened at the waist with an elaborate long belt. During our interview, Musisi explained to me that a complete busuuti consumes fifteen metres: seven metres for the dress, three to five metres for the undercoat (kikoyi) and three metres for the belt. She wondered how someone, especially a young girl in a country on the equator, could wear 15 metres of cloth (Musisi, interview 2006) and attend school. Questioning the practicability and convenience of the busuuti, Musisi rejected the assumption that such a superfluous garment suited school-going children in Uganda. Admitting Musisi’s argument would ignore the fact that issues of practicability and convenience were immaterial to the hierarchical power embedded in the Victorian/Edwardian concept of decency which colonial modernity unleashed. Callaway (1992:223-224) argues that although the British imperial dress code may have communicated a sense of self-discipline and assumed social superiority, its ultimate function was to uphold the balance of power. He argues that ‘dress became a visual marker for distinctions of race, gender and social rank.’ Callaway’s critique confirms that Hurditch’s dress code in the photograph was intended to reinforce an asymmetrical power discourse in which the colonials and the colonised were involved. It also confirms that Uganda’s colonial dress codes, just like their pre-colonial antecedents (seen in Returning home), carried political biases.

The busuuti still exists today. It has been adopted by the mainstream as a cultural dress and is celebrated nationally. Although no longer used as a uniform at Gayaza High School, its ideological biases have been maintained in Uganda’s post-colonial history. It is rigidly enforced that an ideal adult woman wears a busuuti. These ideological biases have permeated Uganda’s visual arts where the busuuti, alongside dresses and the ssuuka have been deployed in many gendered artefacts to construct sexuality, appropriate hierarchical power structures, and to define and confine women.

*Tumusiime, Amanda E. Art and Gender : Imag[in]ing the New Woman in Contemporary Ugandan Art. Diss. UNISA, 2014. http://uir.unisa.ac.za/handle/10500/9036 Accessed June 9, 2015.

Add to the conversation. Tell us what you're thinking.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s