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Story: By George Sydney Abugri

SPECIAL DAILY GRAPHIC NEWS FEATURE

A three-piece outfit comprising the smock {fugu} of Northern Ghana, an accompanying trousers and a matching cap, is selling at US$ 150 dollars on the popular internet auction site “e-bay.”

The increasing popularity of the smock among some African-American communities in the United Sates has been attributed to the increasing showcasing of the Ghanaian fugu in international news coverage and in movies.

The appearance of an actor in a Ghanaian smock in the opening scenes of “I knew nothing until you told me” for example, is thought to have made the Ghanaian smock {fugu} popular among African-Americans in recent years and opened up a market for Ghanaian smocks among African Americans.

Some Ghanaians in the Diaspora have confirmed that an increasing number of people of African descent were wearing smocks to church, Diaspora African festivals and other African community celebrations in major Western cities and cities across the United States and Jamaica.”

Most people however trace the still growing international presence of the Northern Ghana fugu to Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who showcased the smock on one of the most important days in the political history of the African continent, when the attention of the world was fixed on Ghana.

Dr. Nkrumah and five of his comrades in the struggle for independence, Komla Gbedemah, Kojo Botsio, Archie Casely-Hayford, Krobo Edusei, and N.A. Wellbeck, all appeared in splendid smocks at the Old Polo grounds on 6 March1957, to declare Ghana’s independence from British colonial rule.

The picture of Dr. Nkrumah and his five comrades standing on a podium in splendid Northern Ghanaian smocks, while Nkrumah made his historic independence speech, remains one of the most famous pictures in Africa’s political history and in our national and continental archives.

Around the world, many people must have said to themselves, “what colorful and gorgeous garments these men are wearing.”

Wearing the fugu was once the very exclusive preserve of chiefs, traditional priests and holders of sacred or high traditional and royal office in Northern Ghana.

Today, the fugu which has come unscathed through decades of unrelenting assault on Ghanaian traditional culture by imported western values is no longer the exclusive attire of traditional rulers and chiefs.

The smock is today national functional attire, thanks to an ever-increasing number of government officials and prominent personalities who are shedding the three piece suit for traditional smocks at state functions and public gatherings.

Successive Ghanaian heads of state, who have helped showcase the Ghanaian smock by wearing one at important national and international functions, have included J.J Rawlings who often wore a fugu on trips abroad.

Rawlings put the fugu on the screens of television networks around the world when he wore one during the visit of former US President Bill Clinton to Ghana.

Others have been the late President Hilla Limann, then Vice-President and now President J.E.A Mills and to a lesser extent President J.A. Kufour

Many other prominent Ghanaians, from politicians and performing artistes to sportsmen and businessmen have helped establish the Ghanaian identity of the smock overseas by wearing one when they travel abroad. Thanks to this exposure, the average tourist or foreign visitor to Ghana who leaves the country without at least one traditional smock in his luggage is probably an exception these days.

One recent foreign visitor gave a clue to the psychological motivation behind many political leaders’ near obsession with the smock: Ryan Coelho could not hide his fascination with “the feeling of power that comes with wearing a great smock.”

“I swear when you put a smock on, you feel larger than life! You feel empowered! It’s great!” he declared. He recounts how he went sopping for a smock at Navrongo in the Upper East Region, just before he left Ghana:

“The smocks come in all sorts of colours, patterns, and styles and how they create such incredible pieces of work mostly by hand and from just thread, is still beyond me’, marveled the visitor.

Coelho was surprised by at the very large numbers of smocks on display at local markets in Northern Ghana and captivated by their splendor but disappointed that sales of the garment were slow: He recalls counting about 20 shops selling smocks in Navrongo.

“There were tonnes of smocks and the sellers wanted them all sold, but while it takes one week for women to weave the material and five days to hand-stitch them into a smock or two days if they use a machine, it takes them an eternity to sell the fruits of their labour!

He challenged the Ministry of Trade and the business promotion organizations to help find foreign markets for the fugu.

The fugu is often confused with the batakari, but while the batakari is made up of a flowing gown and trousers of varied fabrics, the all cotton fugu is a hand-woven, plaid cotton tunic-like shirt.

The “dansiki” is an adaptation of the formal or functional smock design. The “dansiki” is more loose-fitting and almost sleeveless. It is suitable for the hot, dry season.

To distinguish between traditional royalty and citizens of the north smock producers produce “royal smocks” which are for chiefs. These come with a cap, trousers and knee-length leather boots.

There are various types of traditional smocks peculiar to various traditional areas of Northern Ghana which produces the bulk of the nation’s traditional smocks. There are generally three traditional smock designs identified with the country’s Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions.

The country’s Upper West Region is known for producing the best “cool color” smocks. These generally combine different shades of blue and green or both colors with other “quiet colors” such as yellow, white, blue and green.

The Upper East Region is noted for “warm color” smocks in which various shades of red or orange dominate other colors of the fabric. The Northern Region is noted for its” heavy duty” smocks’ so called because of their generally large size and heavy fabric.

There are now various designs of traditional smocks for different occasions such as festivals, the performance of rituals funerals, weddings and child- naming ceremonies, as well as for leisure wear and informal occasions.

The fugu may incorporate two or more colours. Some common colour combinations are red, blue and white, black and white only, green, and white, green and red, deep or light black and white etc.

The fugu has a wide range of embroidery on the front, back and around the neck, most of them quiet startlingly artistic. The typical color for smock embroidery is white.

The wide range in quality of smocks is reflected in the range of prices, which may be as moderate as GHc, 50 cedis or up to a hundred Ghana cedis or higher. Traditional trousers and a cap to match will usually raise the cost of the traditional outfit considerably.

A pair of knee-length leather horse-riding boots makes the outfitcomplete especially for traditional rulers attending important traditional functions. The average customer unable to meet the cost of the complete outfit is often content with a smock and matching and cap.

In an ingenious blending of African and Western cultures many public officers and dignitaries are wearing the smock over shirt and tie!

Officials of the Ghana Free Export Processing Zones told smock producer s at Bolgatanga earlier this year, that there was a ready market for the Northern Ghana fugu in Malaysia.

Challenges to smock producers include the inclusion of fabrics other than cotton to make the fugu adaptable to different weather conditions while maintaining the essential features and look of the smock.

The smock industry in Ghana is heavily dependent on the local cotton industry. Seed cotton is first spun manually into thread by women using traditional spinning equipment. In the past decade Ghana’s Intermediate Technology Transfer unit has introduced and promoted the use of an improved cotton spinning wheel which spins thread of higher quality much faster for the production of the fugu.

For years, the thread spun was dyed and woven into yarn on a traditional loom operated by male weavers. In the past decade there has been an increasing use of an improved broad loom developed by the Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit to complement and eventually replace the traditional loom which is cumbersome to use.

The advent of the improved broad loom has broken the previous monopoly of men in the production of yarn for smocks, as more women and girls now weave yarn on the broad loom.

This is giving them an opportunity to reap a larger share of profits from the smock manufacturing business. With the improvements in production technology, large-scale production has a boom in the local market for smocks and modest exports are being made.