The said District Councillor (see below) is apparently on a mission, and is rumoured to move around town with a pair of scissors..! He attacked another lady wearing trousers last week, this time a mature woman and not a school girl. The incident took place near Apac Hospital, which was not such a strategic venue as there are always many people in and around the only hospital in the district of Apac (population: ca. 490,000).
The lady who suffered the humility of having her trousers torn by a politician, was nevertheless not so easy to intimidate and she reported the incident to Apac police! The Hon. Malakwang was thereafter arrested, but is out on a police bond.
As the first ‘trouser incident’ was only the first of a string of assaults, it has become clear that such leg wear carry a great deal of symbolic weight. Claiming that he is fulfilling the wishes of Won Nyaci, the Langi Supreme Cultural Leader, Hon. Malakwang’s actions – like many revolutionary or reactionary ones before – might be said to represent the negotiation of a certain transition. It does not matter so much how the Won Nyaci actually judges the wearing of trousers by women; what matters is that the Won Nyaci represents the weight of tradition.
Many developments in Africa have been described within the dichotomous paradigm of tradition-modernity, and most of them have been pretty unhelpful, describing all that Africa is not and failing to understand what is. But The Trouser Incidents of Apac are so obviously, to me at least, about a transition from a patriarchal society which defined a ‘Good Langi Woman’ in terms of subservience, modesty, domesticity and motherhood, to a patriarchal society where women are relatively more independent: educated and earning an income while still mothers.
Trousers symbolised also in Europe all the masculine values of strength, intelligence and independence; and were therefore out of bounds for women. Karen Blixen, whose conditions of life on her farm in Kenya had made her a very independent and atypical woman, reflects upon the changing role of women in Europe in a letter to her mother in 1924:
I would like nothing but to become subservient to a Man whom I admire, but for a Pair of Trousers in themselves I do not harbour any holy Awe, and I think that it is good that they, like Geizler’s Hat, have come off their high Ground. They were perhaps once a holy Symbol, and that was perhaps happier and better Times, but now – nobody knows any more what it was they once symbolised.
(Letters from Africa 1914-1931, p. 241)
Trousers – ‘once a holy Symbol’ – had come off the pedestal in Europe, as women became more economically independent. During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of women had to earn a living independently of their husbands, conscripted or dead. In that context, and in the context of the next world war, it was difficult for the men to resist this development. But in Apac, it is being fought: with scissors. And, perhaps, in court.