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Monday, 17 August 2009

A question too shameful to ask

For some months now a rather shameful question has kept surfacing in my mind. I hesitate even now to name it, such are the implications, the ripples, that may spread from even voicing in public such a question.

It surfaced again prompted by the previous post. My friend's father was in Africa in the 1960s - a time when the delights of the Safari and the magnificence of African wildlife was popular at the cinema and on television. I recall clearly seeing 'Born Free' and watching Armand and Michaela Dennis attend to orphan gorillas and suchlike creatures. And you must understand that part of the fascination of such things at that age was that many of the Africans who featured as friends, helpers or employees, or as rescuers of the orphan creatures, were naked. Ahem. Nowadays of course all Africans wear the same clothes, the same Chinese made shorts and tee shirts, the same clone 'Crocs' as you see on any British High Street. And a question that's been rising like a small Evian bubble (but not the question - that's still to come) every so often is, well, this; were they naturally naked? When did these Africans start wearing clothes?

Now you see what I mean about asking this sort of question. The answer, of course, must be different for every nation, every tribe, every village even; some have always covered their bodies, some will always have been naked. But I'm talking about those Safari sort of places; Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Zambia and the like.

With synchronistic timing, I've just continued reading Alan Moorehead's superlative account of the Desert War, those early victories and battles that helped turn the tide of fascism is Europe. Moorehead gives us a big clue to the answer;
At Juba .. nothing, it seemed, could prevent the native from wearing clothes now. Clothes were a distinction, and it didn't matter much if they did bring disease and ugliness. In parts of the Sudan, Officials were trying to confine the men to a loincloth and the women to a neckscarf. But it was an uphill fight trying to persuade the native to be native.

In Kenya the authorities had accepted the inevitable and had managed to get a sort of uniform accepted. This for men was shorts and a shirt, and for women a simple one-piece cotton frock. Only in the outer villages did the native still walk about in his native savage grace, and even he did not regard this condition very highly, for he was off to an Indian clothing store as soon as he had the money. Glamour was being pushed out of Africa by a mass of cheap printed cotton. Even the grass huts were getting galvanised Iron roofs.
Well, that was in 1940/41. So by the sixties, then, when all those Safari-type things were being filmed, clothing must have been pretty well universal.

And the really shameful question is this; did my childhood heroes, all those gallant and selfless naturalists, actually encourage the poor bloody Africans to disrobe for the camera, to add 'glamour' to their films? Well, did they?


Scrobs... said...

Not the chaps in my Dad's old pics from Nigeria.

'Cock boxes' (cane tubes - er - attached to the length) were the norm for one of the tribes, and they were exactly that!

talwin said...

Fair dos, Readwald. I've posted here before as a chap of a certain age. And, apart from a quick flash from a Harrison Marks mag., film and photos from the Dark Continent at that time offered just about the only tits a schoolboy would be likely to see.

And, if that was down to a director 'looking for authenticity', who was complaining?

Anonymous said...

I suppose it depends where the films were made. The more ubanised Africans would have worn western style clothing, but in the rural and remote areas then more traditional dress would be worn.