The truth about the Gomesi as a National Dress for Uganda Women

Thomas R Omara-Alwala
Thomas R Omara-Alwala: A professor at Lincoln University.




I was in for a surprise when none of our women turned up in the national attire for women of Uganda the gomesi.  It was at the Convention of the Lango Association of North America held in Philadelphia last June.  Two weeks after the convention I asked one of the ladies who herself had showed up in the West African attire of Liberia, why?

I am sorry, I cannot dress up in Baganda attire to celebrate a Lango day; she told me. The gomesi belongs to the Baganda, she went on.  When I told her that her position on the gomesi was wrong you could see the unbelief in her eyes.

What?  What are you talking about my brother?  Prove me wrong and I will see to it that every member of our Association wears the gomesi at our next Convention.

Now I had to prove something that I had long come to take for granted that every Ugandan knew, let alone every Uganda woman, that the gomesi was the national Uganda women.

There is the widespread belief that the gomesi is a traditional dress of the Baganda women as opposed to Uganda women. For those who may not know Buganda is part of Uganda and the natives of Buganda, who are the majority population, are called Baganda.

The myth about the gomesi being exclusively Buganda is complicated by the Baganda themselves who like most people in the country may not know the true origin of the dress, and who in their majority tend to subordinate other Uganda cultures and traditions to their own.

Here is the fact of the gomesi as the de facto national dress of the Uganda women. The gomesi was fashioned and developed between 1905 and 1915 by an Indian of a Goan descent called Gomes after whom the gomesi takes its name.

The story starts at the birth of Gayaza High School in 1905. The Headmistress of Gayaza School, Miss Alfreda Allen, asked Mr. AG Gomes to design a uniform for her girls.

Gayaza had first used a suuka made of bark-cloth as the school dress. Ms Allen asked AG Gomes to make a suuka of cotton as it would be more durable. However, the suuka unraveled during manual work, so AG Gomes added a yoke. That was the prototype gomesi.  Mr. Gomes added a sash later around the waist.  He went on in 1914, which is considered as the birth-year of the modern gomesi, to incorporate aspects of Victorian/Edwardian dresses (the puffed sleeves) and the sari (depicted in the picture) from Gomes’ homeland, Goa.

The name gomesi honors CM Gomes who died in Toronto in 1981 and was the one in whose care the designer of the Gomesi, AG Gomes, left the business.  The gomesi used to be called Teitei Gomesi – the Gomes dress, “teitei” being the Swahili word for dress. “Busuuti” comes from “suit.” “Bodingi” has also been used for the gomesi, a name that probably harks back to Gayaza as a boarding school.

The gomesi was designed at the request of a White school headmistress by an Indian for the Gayaza school girls, irrespective of which part of Uganda they came from.  It is not correct to suggest that the gomesi is exclusively for Baganda women. The gomesi is the national dress of the Uganda women.