Why the school uniform is celebrated in Africa

John Otim


It is probable that in no other place in the world, including England where it all began is the school uniform so prevalent a feature of education as it is in most of Africa. Here as in most former colonies the origin of the school uniform is linked with the pioneering work of the missionaries and with the story of Empire. And here as elsewhere in the world the record of Empire was not particularly a proud or a happy one.

Today as a matter of course no school going child in Africa is complete without his or her school uniform. Adorned in often bright school colors, book bags dangling from shoulders, every day bright eyed kids take to school as their parents look on admiringly. I know of no school in East or Central Africa that does not brandish its own brand of school uniform. In Nigeria and in South Africa the picture is the same. Why are Africans so in love with the school uniform?

At a certain level, there seems to be in Africa, a general love for all things uniform. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nigeria where even families at times may turn up in what can only be thought of as a uniform. At weddings or on other special occasions it is not uncommon to see a family of five may be more clad in its own unique attire complete with cap and head gear. Clothing and dressing is of course the good old way of telling others, here I come and here I am. The uniform on account of its group identity is a particularly potent way of doing this. Suddenly, when you least expect it, you are confronted with folks including kids dressed in exactly the same way. The experience can be pleasing and teasing.

No elite wedding in Africa is complete without the presence of competing sets of uniforms. Recently at a wedding in a town in Northern Uganda the Groom’s people and the Bride’s people both appeared in their respective uniforms. There were at hand groups of competing guests from the various localities, some associated with the groom and some with the bride. Each was in its own unique attire. There was no missing the message, these groups were in competition. As the evening wore on the cheering and the revelry turned into something resembling a crowd scene at a football match.

But Africans are not alone in their love of uniforms. School uniforms are popular in such countries as Australia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brazil. Even in The United States of America where the enthusiasm for the school uniform is perhaps least of all, even here there is evidence of some affectation for the uniform. Not least on the many campuses of America, where college jerseys and T-shirts can at times seem like a uniform of sorts.

Uniforms were particularly a favorite of the pre and the post World War II totalitarian states that used them most effectively as means of recruiting and controlling young people. To be sure there is embedded in the uniform an element of the totalitarian. The uniform reduces every wearer to a common denominator. In this sense of communality, is to be found the special appeal of the uniform to school authorities. This is true in Africa as of other places. To a degree the uniform simplifies the complex task of managing as amorphous as a bunch of school kids. It does away with or at least minimizes the distinction that can arise in school between rich and poor students and that sometimes can stand in the way.

Ever demanding of the individual that he submit, it is arguable that the school uniform undermines in the young, the healthy development of individuality and the rise of the assertive personality, necessary for a virile democracy to flourish. The ever ready acceptance of authority by most people in many African countries is not unrelated to the conditioning produced in part by the school uniform. The fact that most governments in Africa once colonialism was ended, embraced the authoritarianism of their colonial past, created the environment for the continued appeal of the school uniform long past the era of empire.

It may help to remember that in Africa the school uniform began its journey at the mission schools where it was associated closely with matters of discipline. The missionaries were strong believers in discipline and held that out of it came all good things. They weren’t entirely wrong and they did many good things. But beyond their simple demands, the missionaries wanted to draw a sharp distinction between their boys and the non school going crowd. As the mission-educated in time came to occupy salaried positions and accordingly a relatively high economic status in the colonial State, the school uniform grew into a badge of privilege. When this group took over the colonial State and became overnight the new elite, the image of the school uniform in Africa as the badge of privilege was complete.

Today with the rising mass unemployment in Africa and with hundreds of unemployed graduates and school leavers roaming the towns and cities of Africa, some of the shine has come off the old school uniform. But the story of the school uniform in Africa is far from over, if ever it will be.

* John Otim is the Editor of Nile Journal