The politics of Ghana's kente cloth

ACCRA, Ghana — Bill Clinton wore a kente cloth over his suit when he visited Ghana in 1998. So did his wife, Hillary. It was a good try on their part, but a kente faux pas, technically.

Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor elicited gasps when he wore a suit — not a kente cloth — to Ghana’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2007.

Kente cloth is a treasured textile and Ghanaians have strong opinions and advice for U.S. President Barack Obama, who likely will receive some kente when he visits Ghana in July.

“It’s not an add-on,” banker Joseph Hinneh said. “We would appreciate it more if he doesn’t wear it over a suit. That would be splendid.”

Clinton donned a kente cloth before addressing 250,000 Ghanaians. He was showing respect, but traditionally men wear just a T-shirt underneath, or go shirtless, and women wear the cloth like a dress.

Kente is Ghana’s — and perhaps Africa’s — most iconic fabric, hand-woven and worn at weddings and other special occasions. Kente has been popular among black Americans since the 1960s, and kente “stoles” are worn today over many African-Americans’ graduation robes.

“It’s almost a de rigueur gift for a visiting dignitary,” said Doran H. Ross, author of "Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity." “You are expected to put it on when it’s given to you.”

Ross, co-curator of a kente exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1999, forgives Clinton because the cloth was presented on stage at Independence Square in the Ghanaian capital.

“It was put on him as a symbolic gesture. Yeah, it would be bad form to wear it over a suit, normally, but then it would have been bad form for Clinton to say, ‘No don’t put it on me,’” Ross said.

Forgiveness comes harder, among Ghanaians, for Kufuor, whose decision to wear a suit to the nation’s independence celebration is still debated.

“It was a blow to most Ghanaians,” said 43-year-old clothing designer Fred Tsagli of Denu, a coastal town east of Accra. “He must appear in our culture’s attire. A suit is a foreign culture. It doesn’t symbolize what we are.”

But Hinneh, 25, argued that a suit allows for greater mobility, which Kufuor needed.

“It’s not an easy piece of cloth to maneuver in,” he said of the 8-pound cloth, comprised of individual strips that are sewn together. “You inconvenience yourself. Every now and then you have to adjust the cloth. It’s falling off and so forth.”

Similarly, Hinneh said he didn’t wear a kente cloth to his graduation from Ashesi University, although his family members did.

The opinions highlight the debate about kente uses. One side says Ghana is a modern state and should dress in suits and ties.

“Others take the opposite approach, saying ‘we should be asserting our country’s own identity and shedding this colonial heritage,’” Ross said.

The Asante and Ewe (pronounced Ev-ay) ethnic groups have been weaving kente for centuries. Both groups claim to have originated the craft, but Ross said similar weaving took place north of Ghana, in Mali, 1,000 years ago.

Once the domain of chiefs and leaders, kente designs today can be seen in everything from neckties to umbrellas. The varied uses annoy traditionalists but Ross sees it as the democratization of the cloth.

Gilbert “Bobbo” Ahiagble, a master weaver from the Ewe region of Denu, has made kente tablecloths and kimonos for foreign clients. Ahiagble said he’s making a kente wall hanging for Obama at the request of the U.S. embassy in Accra. He calls it “a great honor.” He’s using red, white and blue fabric.

Each pattern has a special meaning. Clinton’s cloth is called “Adweneasa,” which translates to “my skill is exhausted,” indicating the weaver went all-out — a high honor.

“A lot of people buy that pattern,” said Eric Kwanteng, a weaver in Bonwire in the Ashanti region where Clinton’s kente was made. “Some people are in love with it.”

Kente’s international profile grew from African independence movements coinciding with the American civil rights and black power movements. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan state to win independence from a colonial power, in 1957 from Britain.

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, wore a kente cloth to the White House in 1958 and drew curious looks from President Dwight Eisenhower, all captured in Life magazine photographs.

Kente has created minor controversies. A Washington, D.C. judge removed a lawyer from a case in 1992 because the lawyer refused to remove a kente stole worn over his suit. Six years later, a Colorado judge upheld a high school’s ban on kente stoles over graduation robes, ruling public schools shouldn’t have “racial identification.”

There is already discussion in Ghana over whether Obama will wear kente on his trip here. Obama weathered a campaign dust-up in February 2008 when a photo of him dressed as a Somali elder surfaced and some opponents distributed it with the suggestion that he was a secret Muslim. His campaign accused opponents of “fear mongering.”

Now the president’s travel team surely has discussed whether the president should again wear traditional African clothing during the two-day visit to Ghana, the first sub-Saharan stop of his presidency. Every minute of presidential trips are planned well in advance and rarely discussed in public.

President George W. Bush visited Ghana twice but did not wear kente cloth. Separate from those visits, Kufuor on three occasions gave Bush kente cloths — the most expensive valued at $650 — according to U.S. National Archives records.

“Bush is purely American,” said Tsagli, the designer. “Obama has blood of an African in him. When he has been presented the kente cloth, he can wear it. It will show the love and unity between his country and that of Ghana.”

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