One of the Elders associated with Nation Media Group (NMG) is extremely well-travelled and from all over the world he soaks in several lessons about media. His knowledge of the media business can be disarming.
In one meeting, he reflected on what he considered the “unfortunate” tendency that has invaded African media too, of filling newspapers with stories about celebrities, fashion, and all sorts of fads.
He said that fashion and celebrity in western media was “organic” and even necessary in a broad economic sense. The reason, he said, is that the west produces a lot of movies, music, and fashion, and that the sheer amount of the output required that the products be hyped, sold quickly, so as to make way for the next range of products.
Part of the reason for this product cycle has to do with the weather; you need to maximise your summer sales in the few months it is warm, because you won’t sale the same clothes in winter.
Likewise movie releases must be timed to coincide with seasons and events (Thanksgiving in the US when families visit big time and hang out together), and Christmas for the same reason, plus the fact that people in the west travel less over this period. A movie release during a holiday when most people with money have left New York or London to holiday in the tropics is not a smart idea.
He wondered whether fashion or celebrity news serves a similar function in African media. You can wear the same cotton shirt and shoes in Nairobi or Dakar throughout the year, so a shop can string out its stock throughout the year until it is sold without it going out of fashion in ways a London or New York store cannot do.
I read that in the main market for English music releases – the US and UK – there are 50 albums released every week, each with an average of 12 songs – that is 2,500 music albums in a year, therefore about 30,000 songs. To get the public to pay attention to 30,000 songs they need a lot of press coverage. But to stand out in a race where 2,500 artistes are scrambling for sales, you need to do something that sets you apart – a sex scandal, a marriage that lasts one day, a bar fight, skimpy dress, tattoos, even a brush with the law that earns you a notorious weekend in the slammer is good publicity. And it is also necessary.
Now, Kampala and Nairobi together don’t produce 50 albums a year. Our most prolific musicians release, at a high, 5 songs a year each. In such a market, a musician doesn’t need to show up, like Rihanna, wearing torn jeans with her ass peeping through. It doesn’t give her a competitive advantage, so it is not necessary. And media coverage of our minor and major celebrities is useless – it does not sell products, in part because there are hardly any products to sell, so there is no pressure on shelf space. It is like wedding your wife every year; it won’t save a bad marriage.
For the African media, if you are purist and old school, this raises an old question: Do we really understand our societies and report them for what they really are, or do media ape the methods of other media in a disemboweled way without their economic, geographical, and social context?
This afternoon I took a cab across Nairobi. Freed from driving, as we crawled through the traffic
jam, I could look at the citizens of Nairobi in their varieties. There were women wearing very tight pants and skirts, struggling to walk in their equally high shoes. The young men still wear butt britches (trousers that hang at the thighs and shoe the underwear), massive sneakers, and tight shirts.
To most of them, I presume, it is a fashion choice. And, I couldn’t agree more, it is their right right to look and feel good, and to attract the right attention.
Thinking back to the NMG elder’s theory, on the structural functionality of fashion, I thought of something else. The way people, especially the young “in-crowd” Africans dress, I thought, is really a political index about the changes that have happened in these countries. However, we don’t tell the story that way.
Let me explain. Uganda has had many difficult years in its life, and every one of its troubled – and indeed happy –eras has been marked by some peculiarities.
The period between 1981 and January 1986, was when now-President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) were fighting their guerrilla war following the disputed December 1980 elections that were “won” by Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC).
The NRA had what was essentially an urban hit squad in Kampala called “Black Bombers”, led by Brig. (retired) Matiya Kyaligonza (Kyaligonza was Uganda’s High Commissioner to Kenya until about three years ago, when he was transferred to Burundi).
The role of the Black Bombers was to disrupt the Obote government, and show that it couldn’t bring stability. Their main job was to set off explosions, and to target notorious regime functionaries. The Obote government called the NRA and its operatives “bandits” and “terrorists”. The NRA supporters considered them “freedom fighters” and “liberators”.
What was not in dispute was the effect of the Black Bombers actions. Whenever bombs went off, the whole of Kampala would have people running in all directions like crazy. Women’s shoes would be left scattered on the streets; children would be separated from their parents in the mad rush; and people would even abandon their cars.
Apart from the fear of being hit by an explosion, the security services would swoop on the bomb sites and beat up and round up all people. The NRA so unhinged the Obote government that the army (the Uganda National Liberation Front, UNLF) instituted panda pari (get-on-the-truck) operations in which they would grab all the males from a suburb, make them lie in the sun in a playground, and bring NRA prisoners (often suspected collaborators who had been badly tortured), and ask them to view the panda gari victims and identify which ones of them were “rebel sympathisers”.
It was a straight forward human lottery, and the consequences of not identifying a rebel for the prisoners was dire—they would be tortured more in the night if they did not identify their quota of “terrorists”. So, to escape the pain, every prisoner would pick just anyone. My younger and brother and were seized in a dawn panda gari operation. Nearly 10 soldiers entered the house, and shot it. They dragged us away, having beaten our little sisters, and we went on to endured what today remains one of the worst days of my life.
I was pushed through the prisoner gauntlet first, shook the hands of about 10 “rebels” as I walked the line, and survived. Then I had to squat, with armed soldiers sticking guns to our heads, watching my younger brother also do the walk through the prisoners.
I became a man on that day, but I was so angry, some months had to leave the country before I could do something I would regret.
In typical fashion, though panda gari was a backward and cruel measure the army adopted against the Museveni rebels, the Museveni government itself happily continued the practice (especially in northern Uganda during the rebellion there).
The point is that in those times women could not wear the tight skirts and pants they do in Kampala today, because they had to be ready to run for dear life. And men could not wear butt britches and huge sneakers, even if they they had been in fashion then, for the same reason. They needed to run, and those trousers would have fallen to their knees and thrown them down.
The same things happened in neighbourhoods that were targeted by panda gari operations. People would jump through windows, over fences, and run. So both the men and women in Kampala then had to hightail it over walls, fences and open sewers to escape. You couldn’t do that in a tight mini or backside-hugging trouser.
The UNLA soldiers were also a law unto themselves, raping and robbing at will. So people took to hiding their valuables under their clothes. Women needed roomy skirts and blouses for that, and the men hiding their wads of money in their socks or in a belt under the shirt, could not afford tight jeans or muscle t-shirts. They would be revealing their hidden money or possessions, and openly inviting the soldiers to rob or, even, kill them.
So, while Nairobi, Kampala and other cities have their crime issues, I think wearing a tight t-shirt or jeans means people are confident enough that they don’t have to hide their money in their underwear or under the shirt. For the women, fashion aside, showing lots of cleavage and wearing mini-skirts in most places in Nairobi, represents an assessment of how much a woman thinks she is at risk of being attacked by hooligans on the street for “showing too much”.
It is why young women at parties in Nairobi’s middle class neighbourhoods (which are safer) have greater freedom to show up in the strangest dresses, while their sisters in the tough parts of the city are more modest.
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