Social weekends at the Malawi Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi can be creepy. The event among others is characterised by music belted from state of the art machines, sporting activities, boozing and eating. One thing that has made the event disturbing is the way students dress. It speaks volumes of how deep-rooted western fashion is taking over from culture both in and outside institutions of higher learning in the country. And the question that is generally asked goes like: Are western fashion trends reshaping culture in Malawi?
The Malawi Polytechnic example is but a tip of the iceberg of how the dressing code continues to take a knock from western influence. There are many other universities and colleges that have students who dress in a manner that would be described as scary. Gone appear to be the days, for instance when girls used to dress in a manner that was perceived ‘Malawian’.
In the words of one parent in Lilongwe, even students from secondary schools “are aping everything they see in music videos in the name of fashion.”
“It’s not only college students who are dressing strangely. You have students from our secondary schools, some as young as 15 dressed like western musicians. It is very scary if you consider the pace at which our children are coping what they see on television in the name of fashion,” says Mrs Dalitso Manda, a mother of three.
She wonders what Malawi will be like in the next five years if something effective won’t happen to reverse the worrying trend. Mrs Manda is one of the custodians of culture who believes that a country without culture is like a tree without roots.
A number of parents share Mrs Manda’s concerns that western designers are greatly influencing the direction of fashion in Malawi and that is having great impact on culture.
Malawi of yesterday
Mbanandi: Fashion is changing our way of clothing
From the 1960s through the 70s, 80s, to the 90s, Malawians were known for their formal dressing. The working class men especially those who were in white collar jobs were always clad in suits or at least something formal. Likewise their female counterparts were spotted in dresses or skirts that covered their knees. The writing was on the wall for women to at least wear chitenje [wrappers] if the skirt was perceived shorter.
Boys were instructed always to tuck in their shirts. You rarely saw a pupil in primary school with rumpled hair. Naughty boys with unkempt hair paid heavily for this ‘sin’. No one needed to be told that to be admitted in school you needed to cut your hair short. There was moral order which directed the flow of events in the Malawian society.
From politics to education, the four corner stones – unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline shaped society. Under Malawi’s founding president, late Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party [MCP], culture interlaced with other social needs.
A teacher in Blantyre puts the blame on developments that unfolded in the early 1990s.
“It is in the 1990s when we experienced the winds of change in southern Africa. People started to demand for more freedoms from autocratic and dictatorships. People wanted democracy. At the time we didn’t know that democracy and the freedoms we were demanding for would have serious repercussions on culture,” says the teacher who prefers not to be named.
He observes that the Malawian culture suffered serious knocks from 1994 after the attainment of multi-party politics. A new constitution was drafted that gave Malawians more freedoms including that of dressing.
“In no time there was an influx of miniskirts and long skirts that had slits that were too revealing. Women started wearing tight trousers. Boys were introduced to new haircuts and wore huge [baggy] trousers that were fashionable at the time. One could clearly see that our culture had gone to the dogs. Since then new fashions have affected our culture and we haven’t managed to reverse things,” the Blantyre teacher says.
He adds that even the discipline that shaped the young ones in learning institutions went with the fall of Kamuzu and the MCP government.
Moving with the times?
Most youths say Malawi belongs to a global village and they [youths] have to move with the times. They think that some of the cultures are outdated and ineffective in the modern world. Others, however, think while moving with the times puts the country at par with other nations that should not be done at the expense of culture.
Mbanandi Tsaka, a student at The Polytechnic in Blantyre says fashion has had a serious blow on Malawian culture.
“If you attend a wedding ceremony you realise how fashion is changing our way of clothing. You see women and girls in miniskirts revealing their thighs. In the past, you would be told that such dressing is against our cultural norms.
“Another thing is the way boys dress these days. They deliberately leave their trousers to hang down loosely to reveal whatever they are putting inside. They call it kukhwefula [sagging or floppy] and it’s not Malawian. The formal dressing that we were known for is slowly but surely disappearing,” says Mbanandi.
Jane Changwada of Radio Maria in Mangochi says while youths need to move with time, they should avoid some trendy fashions which make them look like American musicians such as Rihanna, 50 Cent or Jay-Z.
“Malawian youths must wear clothes that should distinguish them from people from other nations especially those from the West. We seem to be creating a lost generation which is so mixed up in things. We are not sure whether or not future generations will know at all that we had ethnic groupings such as Mulhakho wa Alhomwe and Chewa Heritage,” she explains.
She urges the youth to have passion for culture and not fashion alone.
“Our traditional wear is admired all over the world. Our culture is also something that people talk about in many countries. We should be proud to be Malawian and preserve our culture. Fashion comes and it goes. Culture is our identity,” says Jane.
Judging by the way Malawian youths clothe during wedding ceremonies, parties and other social events, traditionalists have an uphill battle to ensure that fashion does not erode culture.