Coat of many colours

When I chanced by the song ‘Coat Of Many Colours’ on radio, I was transported back 43 years. That’s when I used to listen to country music by the likes of Dolly Paton. Boy, we loved that music! And, I’m told, Dolly is still at it, resilient girl.

When I chanced by the song ‘Coat Of Many Colours’ on radio, I was transported back 43 years. That’s when I used to listen to country music by the likes of Dolly Paton. Boy, we loved that music! And, I’m told, Dolly is still at it, resilient girl.

But hearing ‘Coat Of Many Colours’ also drove me back a decade earlier, 1961. Freshly in exile in Bufumbira, south-western Uganda, I learnt how to ‘design’. Soon, among designers of the area, I was the crème de la crème; the Calvin Klein, nay, the Coco Chanel of modern-day fashion design.

You see, Bufumbira, at the foot of Mt. Muhabura, can be brutally cold for a scantily dressed lad, in mornings and evenings. This, especially when newly recruited into the business of herding cattle. So, to survive, necessity became the mother of invention and I became an ‘inventor’.

The whole of Bufumbira was inhabited by simple villagers, all necessarily dressed in rags. This meant that there were pieces of cloth everywhere, which is how I gathered those bits, got a needle and thread and went to work. I got my old shirt and stitched piece after piece of titbits of cloth onto it as I sat, herding cattle. 

What I wore while stitching, ask about Adam’s suit! What I know is that, every day I stitched pieces of cloth on the main body of my shirt, adding to its thickness and length. Before I knew it, I had a kabuti (long coat) to beat the best winter coat. It covered me from neck to toe but weighed a ton and was a kaleidoscope of colours. So, the befitting name: Kab-o-Kalaz!

Back to me, my head also needed protection. But, no sweat! There were many plants that had wide, sticky leaves. I gathered them and stuck leaf to leaf as I made the shape of a hat and: a tip, crown, band, wide or narrow brim and voilà: a hat, as I chose. Trilby hat, cowboy, boater, bowler, top hat, I made them all. 

When I needed something light like a panama hat, I weaved one, the way our ladies weave baskets (uduseke). As for caps, I made leafy ones by the dozen a day.

The moment I stepped out in my outfit, with my umuzo stick looking every inch like an Englishman with an umbrella in winter, I was mobbed by everybody, young and old. They all wanted my outfit. In fact, many were ready to give a heifer, in form of payment, so that I could design them a Kab-o-Kalas or a bowler hat!

Unfortunately, refugee life being what it is, we had to move, in search of land. We went to Congo Kinshasa (DRC today), from where, before we could even rest, we were forcefully herded into Uganda. Whereupon, I joined school and later was introduced to Fine Art, in secondary school. The pleasure of seeing ‘civilised’ tools (brushes, canvass, paper) when you were only used to crude cloth and leaves! I literally devoured them, painting without rest!

That’s how one time, in a Fine Art class, I painted a basket of a variety of fruits: pineapple, ripe bananas, oranges, guavas, others. Because everybody admired the painting, I was urged to display it in our classroom, rather than the art room. 

Before that, however, I placed the canvass against the wall behind the class, as we waited for our Maths lesson.

Little did I know that Mr. Rwabibi, our stern Maths teacher, was allergic to the smell of ripe bananas. So, I was taken aback when, on glancing at the painting, he held his nose and angrily shouted: “Mhhmhh! Who brought in those bananas?” And the class chorused, pointing at me: “Ingina Pankuriyasi!” suppressing giggles. When I tried to protest: “But, sir, it’s only...” he angrily hissed: “Out with them!”

“Bu...” I insisted but he yelled “Out!” I could see the faces of the class were swollen to bursting! When I lifted the light canvass, it was as if I opened a valve and the class exploded! Above the ruckus, I shouted: “Sir, I was trying to explain that it’s only a painting!” 

Mr. Rwabibi faked a cough in bewildered amusement and waved me to my chair. By the time the class settled down, the time for the lesson was over and he walked out.

All of which goes to show you that there is nothing like home habits for best performance. When you are able to connect what you grew up in with what you are doing, you can be sure to excel. Did I hear someone shout “Home-made solutions”?

Anyway, do make sure to have something you have a passion for – even if it is designing, or merely listening to, something like ‘Coat Of Many Colours’!

 

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