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Nudity in Africa: Re-visiting the Pre-Colonial and Colonial Times


It is not uncommon to hear modern Africans dismiss nudity, especially female nudity and semi-nudity as un-African and an import from the western part of the world. How true is the claim that nudity is foreign to African cultures?


Is nudity really a recent development brought about by colonization or has nudity always been a part of many African cultures?


A close look at history and close attention paid to African languages and semantics, art, and cultural practices, will help one realize quickly that nudity was in no way tied to morality in precolonial times. Not only is nudity not a recent development, nudity used to be and still is a significant part of many African cultures.

 

Nudity was appropriate and fashionable


Mangbetu-Congo Africa-From-the-book-Body-Decoration
Mangbetu - Congo Africa - From the book “Body Decoration”

Before the advent of colonialism, nudity used to be appropriate and even fashionable. Since many African countries often get hot, in these weathers, it was considered normal for men and women, especially young, unmarried women to dress in scanty clothing or leave parts of their bodies such as their chests bare. Nude art was also very popular as artist drew on bare bodies.

 

Nudity used to be symbolic


Women-of-Mioko-ca-1900
Women of Mioko ca 1900 culled from Wikipedia

Nudity in Africa, especially a woman’s nudity symbolizes many things. A woman’s naked body symbolizes fertility, life, and nature. It is why many sculptures, paintings, and carvings of African women often portray them fully nude or with barely any kind of clothing. The female breasts represent life since they are used to feed and nourish children, they also symbolize mortality given the changes that occur in a woman’s breasts as time passes. The vagina symbolizes a passage through which all humans came to life.

 

Nudity was sacred


Orisa-Ibeji
Orisa Ibeji Photo Credit: Ibeji art

Nudity was not always as sexualized as it is now. Nudity used to in fact be sacred. Nudity was and still is a form of spirituality. In some parts of Africa for instance, it is believed that a woman’s prayers or curses are more effective when she makes her proclamations while naked. Many times, when the images of deities and idols are craved, they are nude and hardly ever carved in any kind of clothing. This practice is especially common amongst the Yoruba people in the Southwestern part of Nigeria. An example of such a carved idols is the “orisa ibeji” representing twin children. These orisas when carved using wood or clay are often naked.


Nudity used to be celebrated


Legendary-Cattle-Keepers-of-Sudan
📷 Angela Fisher & Carol Beckwith (Legendary Cattle Keepers of Sudan )

In many African cultures, nudity was and still is a huge part of their festivities and celebrations. An example is “Umkhosi WoMhlanga” known in English as the King Reed Dance and practiced by the Zulu people of South Africa. Teaching younger women (they are often taught by older women) to be proud of their sexual purity and naked bodies is an important aspect of the festival during which young women and girls are often half-naked. In recent times, many young girls and women wear beads covering the upper part of their bodies but still exposing parts of their breasts. In the past, they danced with their bare breasts, a practice that some young women still embrace to this day.  In some parts of Edo State, Nigeria, there are festivals organized for young women and girls to initiate them into womanhood. One of the features of these festivals is nudity. Although just like Zulu women do, many of these young women in recent times, cover their breasts using beads worn around their bodies but still exposing parts of their bodies and breasts. Women being naked at festivals and cultural celebrations is not an uncommon occurrence in different parts of Africa.

 

Nudity used to be used in protests


Nudity was also used by women as a form of protest against monarchs in pre-colonial times and during the colonial period, nudity was used as a form of protest against the colonial government. In 1929, women from the Eastern part of Nigeria protested against the colonial government by taking off their clothes and running into the streets. From Uganda to different parts of Nigeria, women have protested naked to be taken seriously. As recently as 2022, women in Ondo state took to the streets sans their clothing to protest against the high rate of insecurity in some parts of Ondo State.

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