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Passionate about the ever-rising contribution of the fashion industry to economic growth and development in Africa, MARGARET MHINA believes the sector has a critical role to play in Tanzania’s quest for the attainment of its Vision 2025 – the march towards industrialisation.

In this recent interview, Margaret Mhina of Sahara Tanzania Limited speaks about the growing influence of the fashion industry across Africa and the opportunity the company – a Sahara Group energy conglomerate affiliate – gives her to mentor young people through the Sahara Foundation.

The fashion industry in Africa is evolving quite fast. What factors do you think are driving this rapid growth?

Answer: I would accredit that in part to the Pan African movement that started abroad. The call for black solidarity and appreciation for our culture has since spread like wildfire. Celebrities such as Beyoncé and Tracee Ellis Ross, to mention but a few, have recently been spotted rocking African Print outfits. It has been an organic evolution that began in the 1970s, a time when Kiswahili and other African names were re-introduced into the Afro-American society.

A cultural shift then occurred, encouraging the Black community to embrace and appreciate their cultural heritage. Celebrities were not left behind; we had names such as Taraji Penda Hansen and Sanaa Lathan. Thus, a generation of proud Afro-Americans emerged; these babies of the 1970s can be considered as today’s trendsetters.

The recent blockbuster interest in African culture, including movie releases like “Black Panther” and “The Lion King”, have managed to shift the Hollywood lens and zoomed in on African culture – most especially our glorious attires. There was a visible shift on social media especially during the Black Panther release, with a lot of dashiki and Maasai patterns worn.

The African fashion industry is incredibly rich in inspiration and has a lot to offer, the only thing needed being an inspiring platform.

What role can the fashion industry play in shaping positive narratives about Africa?

The fashion industry can be used a tool in the fight against neo-colonialism. Since that was an idea implanted in our grandparents’ minds, that most things of African origin were backward and primitive, we ought to reintroduce, reinforce and reincorporate our culture. Fashion is one of the best ways to do that. In Tanzania, we have a country rich in culture, rich in heritage, rich in diversity…all we need is to dig deep for genuine inspiration and we could create an amazing variety of inspirational outfits.

Everything about our attire has a specific meaning, and all we need to do is appreciate and revive our own culture so that the rest of the world can also experience the spirit of Africa. In Tanzanian culture, for instance, there is a saying that goes thus: “You can only hit a woman with khanga.” Now, for anyone not familiar with the fabric I am talking about, khanga is a light textured two-piece wrapper.

At weddings, I have often heard older men telling the groom that whenever he is upset by his wife he should buy a pair of khanga and throw it at her (which won’t really cause any harm or pain to the lady), but he should never put his hands hard enough on his wife to inflict harm. This is our culture, that is the custom that the garment carries and I think this is a message worth being spread worldwide.

We can celebrate and share our culture with the world through fashion. That is how the Maasai print ended up being incorporated into the Calvin Klein collection some years ago. The legendary print has been used to share the culture of the Maasai with the world. It is my firm belief that our diversity, our edge, our curls and our braids need to be incorporated more in offices and other formal platforms. There are some rules and regulations that need to be revised in public offices, the neo-colonial stigma against dreads being one of the issues. We ought to understand that a hairstyle or a dashiki shirt does not affect the personality or mind of the one choosing to wear them proudly.

How is the fashion sub-sector faring in Tanzania? How fashion conscious would you say Tanzanians are?

Tanzanians are generally fashion conscious although, surprisingly, the industry is not faring as well as one might expect it to. Kenya is easily the ‘fashion capital’ of East Africa and if a model were to start his/her career I would advise them to start off there and then move to the continental fashion capital, South Africa. Successful Tanzanian models like Flaviana Matata (New York) and Millen Magese (South Africa) are both working abroad.

I would proudly say that Tanzania boasts some of the best-dressed celebrities in East Africa so, yes, we are quite fashion conscious and often keep up with the trends. Many Tanzanian celebrities and designers have incorporated khanga and kitenge prints into more contemporary garments. Among my favourites would be artistes Vanesa Mdee, who just loves playing with colours, and Jacqueline Wolper. To say the latter’s garments are brave would clearly be an understatement.

Nor are the men on the Tanzanian fashion scene lagging behind. Love him or hate him, Nasibu Abdul Juma (stage name: Diamond Platinumz) is one of the best-dressed male celebrities – while much the same goes for one-time Big Brother Africa winner Idris Sultan. These front very different styles in that Idris leans more towards business casual while Diamond can get quite creative, but both are fabulous and talented.

By way of comparison, which part of Africa would you say has the most sophisticated fashion industry on the continent and why?

I absolutely love Tanzania and we are the proud hosts of the annual Swahili Fashion Week, a major event for any East African model or designer. However, I would have to go with South Africa when it comes to choosing Africa’s fashion capital. Models from all over the world choose it as a starting point for their careers. Competitions are stiff but that might be the beginning of one’s ‘journey’ in the European and New York fashion scene. Many talented East Africans have chosen South Africa as their preferred career destination. One of our male models, DaxxCruz, has had his entire career built in Johannesburg. Everything, from modelling agencies right to boarding houses reserved for models and the lifestyle, is as close as you can get to Milan and New York.

Nigeria would not be left lying far behind, though. GT Fashion Week was a big hit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. One of my closest friends featured there and she had only good things to say about Lagos. I am told that Nigerian make-up artists can work magic on your eyebrows, and I look forward to experiencing that. Then there is the undeniably beautiful beadwork and headwraps that just take your breath away.

This last decade has witnessed a surge in demand for local fabrics across the continent. Is that to suggest that Africans are getting increasingly excited about ‘wearing Africa’?

Africans are doubtless getting more conscious about self-love and beauty standards. Now that Pan-Africanism is openly and strongly supported by Black entertainers and trendsetters, people are more open to the idea of going back to their roots. It is no longer frowned upon to wear beads or have an African print headscarf. African print is the new “black” for people of colour all over the world. I was pleasantly surprised to see an Afro-American man wearing beads instead of gold chains around the neck in one of the American programmes I was watching a while back. More power to him; even though they were not waist beads, I appreciate the effort and love.</p>

More and more people are noticeably shifting towards more natural products, including things that keep their natural hair healthy. There are a lot of pages that advertise beads and necklaces with captions such as “Authentic Ghanaian belly chains” or “Authentic Maasai beadwork necklace”, and these products sell like hot cakes on online platforms. There is a sure rise in black consciousness and we are in a place where we now view the word “African” in a different manner from the way we did some decades ago. So, yes, people are excited to wear and purchase authentic African accessories and garments.

What do you look out for when shopping for African fabrics and designs?

The patterns and colours fascinate me. I have a personal preference for darker print combinations with unusual patterns. I am normally quite particular when it comes to shoes and clothes; most of my wardrobe consists of black and beige, which I think is appropriate for any occasion. My choice in African prints doesn’t stray very far from that but, of course, I allow a slightly wider colour selection and I do have a fun bright yellow fabric in my wardrobe. Indeed, I might even end up making it into a fun skater dress…who knows?

Professional advice: If you are going to a children’s party and you do not want to be the centre of attention and get your outfit all messed up, wear dark colours – as I learnt the hard way…

What would you say is the value of the fashion industry in Africa?

It is a billion-dollar industry, US$30+ billion, to be exact. The market for African accessories and African print fabrics is huge out there and they sell for a very high price. I had a woman tell me the story of a celebrity designer from the US who came to Tanzania to shop for African print fabrics and had these made into simple ball earrings. She was charged about US$1.50 apiece, which was more than enough to buy the material, pay for labour and get a decent profit. In turn, she sold the pieces to A- list celebrities for a ridiculously high price. So, yes, there is money to be made in the African fashion industry and there are also people to be empowered and lives to be improved. Let’s not reduce the industry to a mere number. I am a fan of taking the humanitarian approach to business.

What excites you the most about Tanzanian designs and which Tanzanian designers do you admire most?

The best Tanzanian designers, in my view, are Ally Rhemtullah and Mustapha Hassanali. Their attention to detail and their emphasis on the femininity of the garments are impressive. I can recall one of Hassanali’s interviews some years ago in which he emphasized how his designs were specifically made to suit the full-figured and attractive figure of a ‘typical’ African woman. I immediately fell in love with his work. Being in an industry that glorifies skinny women and to outwardly say that you design clothes for curvy girls is very, very brave.

You had worked as a model before joining Sahara Tanzania Limited. Are you missing your life as a model?

I didn’t choose modeling; rather, modelling chose me. I got into the industry because of peer pressure and I was never very keen on fashion and beauty. I knew it was just a stepping stone and I treated it as such. I did eventually fall in love with the camera, though. One of the best photo sessions I have been a part of was a project for a Chinese magazine. We visited a designer’s workshop – you may choose to call it home – in a Nairobi suburb and it was full of African art and ornaments. It was b-e-a-utiful, as Jim Carry (Canadian-American actor, comedian, impressionist, screenwriter, musician, producer, artist, painter and cartoonist James Eugene Carrey) would say.

I got to dress like a Maasai Queen, then a Senegalese Queen and finally a Ghanaian Queen. I never got the professional images but the experience alone was amazing. I would say I am a different kind of model now at Sahara Group, where the culture encourages one to volunteer for great causes. This transformation is quite exciting for me, as giving back at Sahara has a personal touch to it through volunteering and a shared passion to make a positive difference that is shared by all employees of Sahara Group across our locations.

So, these days, I am quite content with being a role model to younger people by being a part of Sahara Foundation’s interventions in Tanzania, especially those targeted at giving wings to the dreams and aspirations of the youth in the country. I guess, that makes me a Sahara model and I am delighted to be one.

You are involved in a lot of youth empowerment activities being implemented by Sahara Foundation in Tanzania. How important is this to you?

That is very important to me because, as one of the Tanzanian youth myself, I can relate to the many struggles the beneficiaries of these programmes go through. I appreciate having the opportunity to support a good cause. It is very important, regardless of the situation that someone is in, that they have hope. When you are struggling to make something of yourself, you need a helping hand every now and then. To say that this is charity would be wrong because we are simply enabling bright children to overcome a stage in their life that would open the door to greater opportunities and achievements. I have been in situations where I have needed assistance and, because of that, I am where I am today. It is an honour and a great responsibility to pass that back into the society that has grown and embraced me since I was a child.

How would you counsel young women and men desiring or planning to take up modelling as a career?

You need to have an extremely tough skin, expect to meet agents who will take advantage of you, beware of people who will try to persuade you to live above your means and always be your number one fan. I will not sugarcoat it; modelling is cut-throat business. Many people get modelling and pageantry mixed together; but while they may be similar, they couldn’t be more different.

Pageantry is about your personality; it is the soft, feminine image of a perfect woman engraved in everyone’s mind. You are supposed to be sweet, gentle, approachable, helpful and beautiful inside and out, a true sweetheart (for lack of a better word). In modelling, though, you are just a hanger – the thinner, the better; the edgier, and the better.

Former African-American supermodel Tyra Banks once said that models are not beautiful, that they are just a bunch of girls with weird features that take good pictures. I would say much the same: that the richest and most successful models in the world right now are weird-looking, long-legged creatures that can bend and break their bodies into impossible shapes during photoshoots – and the edgier, the better. There is a lot of love for my dark-skinned sisters in the industry right now, so more power to you brown-skinned girls. Make us proud!

Tanzania has grand plans with its Vision 2025. How can the fashion industry help facilitate the achievement of the vision?

The fashion industry can make a significant contribution to the realisation of the plans. Fashion can promote unity and a sense of belonging, especially if it borrows elements from our rich array of traditional attires. Growing up in an interracial family, I had to learn both cultures and love both races. My belief is that people exposed to experiencing a number of cultures from an early age become a part of all those experiences and they unknowingly become one with diversity. We, Tanzanians, are a diverse nation home to many tribes and ethnic groups. We can unify ourselves by allowing everyone to see, feel and experience a unique piece of everyone’s culture through fashion.

Do you have plans to establish traditional fashion outfits?

I am not sure about establishing a single line of traditional outfits. We have kept that option open to interpretation for very long because we have always felt that constricting 120+ tribes to a single national outfit, which would most likely heavily lean towards a single culture, would be unfair to the rest of the communities. We have a socialist legacy; we prefer sharing rather than limiting ourselves to one option.

Interview published by IPPMedia, courtesy of Sahara Group.


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