Kaba—An Elegant African Style of Dress
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GHANA
KABA—you can see it virtually everywhere here in Ghana and in neighboring West African countries. It is worn on a variety of occasions—from funerals to joyful Christian gatherings. And kaba comes in different styles and colors.
Just what is kaba? It is a popular style of women’s attire. The name refers to an outer garment that extends from the base of the neck down to the waist. However, it is not worn alone. A two-yard [2 meters long] piece of textile popularly known here as wax print, or java print, depending upon the quality, accompanies it. Wrapped around the waist and ending at the ankles, this garment is called asetam. The ensemble is complete only when it is wrapped up with yet another two-yard piece of cloth called the nguso. The nguso is versatile and may also be used as matching headgear or as a means of tying a baby to one’s back.
Kaba is unique to Africa, but it is known by different names throughout the continent. Liberians call it lappa suit. In Benin it is genwu. Sierra Leoneans call it docket and lappa. Not long ago, though, kaba was unknown in African lands. Here in Ghana, for example, the dansenkran style was popular among Akan-speaking women. This consisted of two separate pieces of cloth, sometimes of the same print. One piece was wrapped around the waist and fastened with a girdle. The second piece, usually larger, was worn over the left shoulder, across the chest and back. A unique hairstyle, also called dansenkran, was usually worn with this garb.
With the introduction of the sewing machine, however, some African women began fabricating garments that resembled the Western blouse. The idea was to cover the shoulders as Western women did. One story has it that some had difficulty pronouncing the expression “cover the shoulders.” The word “cover” thus became kaba.
Kaba Becomes Fashionable
From office workers to farmers, women continue to wear kaba. Indeed, it has even become an export commodity! However, such popularity is relatively recent.
For one thing, not all women liked the styles of kaba that were on the scene 40 or so years ago. A retired social worker named Agnes, aged 62, told Awake! that some of those past styles were “ridiculous.” For other women, putting kaba on properly, with its asetam and nguso, required too much patience and artistry. Elizabeth, who runs a dressmaking factory, recalls: “It was difficult for us young ladies to master the skills of wearing the asetam and nguso. I never mastered the art,” she admitted.
Class distinction also played a role in lessening the popularity of this style of dress. Serwah, aged 65, told Awake! that until recently, many felt that Western-style dress was for the educated, while kaba belonged to the uneducated.
However, a new cultural awareness has caused many African women to take a second look at kaba. Fashion designers have also given the garb a significant boost. For one thing, they developed an innovative garment called a slit. Designed like a skirt but reaching to the ankles, it solved the problem some women had in wrapping the asetam and nguso correctly. Exhibitions and shows have also played a big role in promoting kaba as high fashion.
Of course, as is the case with fashion in many lands, some of the latest styles place heavy emphasis on sensuality. Clara, aged 69, contends that such revealing clothing seems to subvert “the original aim of kaba,” which was to “cover even the shoulders.” Christian women, therefore, keep in mind the counsel of the apostle Paul: “Likewise I desire the women to adorn themselves in well-arranged dress, with modesty and soundness of mind.”—1 Timothy 2:9; 1 Corinthians 10:29.
For women who choose wisely, kaba can prove to be an elegant and practical style of dress. And while many traditional African styles of dress have become outmoded, kaba has thus far managed to survive as a style that reflects African culture and environment in an appealing and elegant way.
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The nguso, used here as headgear
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The nguso, used to carry a child