Tracing the Origin of  the Gomesi / Busuuti
Still standing.

Tracing the Origin of the Gomesi / Busuuti

Women dressed in busuuti.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: December 5, 2006

In African culture, women's decency was valued highly. This decency was portrayed in many forms including dressing, which in many tribes reflected mannerism. As part of the continued quest for decency, the early tribesmen with efforts from missionaries in Buganda came up with the idea of a Gomesi/Busuuti.

Gomesi is the official dress for women in Buganda, as in many tribes of Uganda. A woman not dressed in a Gomesi at a social function or event was not considered decently dressed until the recent arrival of Bitengi and Agbada from west Africa.

While there are no doubts that it is a noble attire, there are many historical contradictions about the origin of the Gomesi. Contemporary history indicates that the it was originally made for Gayaza schoolgirls in around 1940s and 50s.
16th November, 2006

Gomesi was originally made for Gayaza schoolgirls. Their first school uniform was a cotton sheet, which they wrapped around their breasts and tied to the waist with a strip of cloth.

But the uniform often slipped off whenever the girls bent down to dig. Their missionary tutors thought it was indecent for a woman to expose her breasts. So, they had an Indian tailor sew out the gomesi. Two decades later, the gomesi became a popular outfit at all traditional functions for the Baganda and later the Basoga, Iteso, Alur and Japadhola.

But some people, especially the Baganda, dispute this version of history and say the Gomesi existed long before the coming of the missionaries and that missionaries only improved the existing design and changed the name to claim the discovery.

"When we were growing up, our Bazungu (whites) teachers told us that the Gomesi started after the coming of European missionaries in Africa but later I realized through our traditions and values that the Gomesis made by Indians were an improvement of those already existing in the form of bark cloth," reveals 70 year old Rose Nakiwala before admitting, "I cannot tell when women started wearing Gomesis in Buganda".

Nakiwala however says that the fashion and style of bark cloth Gomesi was different from that introduced by Indians in cotton fabric. "Edda gomesi mululimi lwe kinansi yayitibwanga Olubugo oba Ekiwuzi-long ago the gomesi was called bark cloth or sash," says Nakiwala who also revealed that she never wore a gomesi made out of bark cloth.

Unlike the modern Busuuti, Nakiwala says the original bark cloth gomesi in Buganda was not sophisticated (probably due to the lack of sewing machines). She says it was one bark cloth garment/sheet wrapped around a woman's body. It was worn to cover the breasts and legs leaving the back open, something similar to the fore mentioned Gayaza girls' uniform.

Romantic Gomesi
According to Harriet Nakazi, a gomesi tailor in Kiyembe (a fashion hub mainly for traditional garments), the original gomesi was designed with romantic bias aimed at showing the tenderness of a woman's body. "Most importantly, the floor length Gomesi was meant to give a woman respect by covering the most important parts of her body. It was very important in Buganda. How would you appear before the Bako (in laws) or Sabasajja (King) when your legs are exposed," wondered Nakazi.

"The open back Gomesi started disappearing in early 1950s towards independence," recalls Nakiwala. She however says that many rural Baganda women still wear open back Busuutis.

Changing Gomesi
Traditionally, the busuuti among the Baganda and other tribes, was strapless and made from bark-cloth. The busuuti is worn on all festive and ceremonial occasions like Kwanjula (introduction or formal engagement), wedding and during the funeral ceremonies. However, it is a day-to-day dress for most rural women who consider skirts and blouses as girls' dresses and cannot wear trousers.

According to Hajat Zuliyati Bbosa, the modern Gomesi has gone through four stages. "First was bark cloth gomesi, worn by our mother, then Kaki gomesi/cotton gomesi which we wore in the 1960s, then Toplain in 1970s then Kikoy gomesi," says Bbosa, 65. She says the Kikoy gomesi is in reference to the underneath garment wrapped from above the woman's breast.

Even Nakiwala admits that today's Gomesi is quite different from what she saw and put on when growing up. More designs have been added to make the fading attire plausible to young generations. Today's Gomesi or Busuuti is often a floor-length, brightly colored cloth dress with a square neckline and short, puffed sleeves. The garment is fastened with a sash placed just below the waist over the hips, and by two buttons on the left side of the neckline.

Hajat Bbosa says that originally there was one simple style of wearing a Gomesi-that is wrapping the bark cloth around oneself. But as modernity set in and the design became sophisticated, the details increased making wearing a Gomesi an elaborate exercise, probably one reason why young people do not fancy it.

Bbosa says that as women opted for linen fabric contrary to bark cloth and cotton, women started noticing that the new fabric easily sticks on the body and makes movement difficult. "To avoid the linen sticking onto the body, a Kikooy came in handy as underwear. It is smooth, comfortable and remains dry even when one sweats," says Bbosa.

Gomesi losing out
Despite all the traditions and customs attached to the Gomesi, it is ever becoming less popular and uncomfortable for young people especially professionals who prefer business suits, trousers and dresses.

Cossy Nalugwa, a Makerere University student says a Gomesi is good but not friendly to the fast moving life of Kampala where one has to jump onto a boda boda or bicycle to catch up with appointments. "As a member of Nkoba za Mbogo (a club of Baganda youth advocating for preservation of Buganda's cultural values), I am supposed to support the wearing of a Gomesi, but a flexible design should be promoted so that more young people can wear them," says Nalugwa.

But flexibility is not the only reason why young women are shunning the Gomesi. Modern young women have other feminine issues like whether the Gomesi will be able to portray their curves and hips as much as they like.

"A Gomesi is not a right attire for a slender person like me," reasons Jennifer Nakazibwe adding that some women stuff a blanket underneath so that their curves can come out in a Gomesi... a mighty task.

Women dressed in busuuti
Women dressed in busuuti.

Hope for the Gomesi
However, some dynamic designers with business acumen have found a window for making money (after all, among the tribes who wear Gomesis, it's almost compulsory to wear it on certain functions like a Kwanjula.) The designers have improvised the necessary changes to attract young people. For instance, Chrisams Designs, a tailoring house on Bombo Road, has modernized the gomesi to include a zip to make sure that the dress does not slip open at the sides.

The fold over the waist is fastened with straps. The invention has received a positive response. The tailoring house is now receiving more young people from around the city putting in their orders. "A number of campus girls often come to order for this Gomesi," says Agnes Mugabi, one of the tailors.

But the Gomesi will continue to be a source of clashes between culture and modernity. Whether, wearing a Gomesi is uncomfortable or not, today, in many tribes, people will scoff at a woman who goes to a cultural function in anything but the gomesi.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: December 5, 2006
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Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.