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The politics of Ghana's kente cloth

Will Obama wear Africa's iconic textile when he comes to Accra?

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.”