Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Consequences of Uniformity: The Struggle for the Boy Scout Uniform in Colonial Kenya

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Consequences of Uniformity: The Struggle for the Boy Scout Uniform in Colonial Kenya

Article excerpt

In the late 1950s, authorities in Uganda arrested a number of young men from Kenya trying to sneak over the border while dressed in variations of the Boy Scout uniform. Although European Boy Scout leaders were alarmed by these potential smugglers' use of Scouting, they were particularly concerned by their appropriation and modification of the movement's uniform and core symbols. Worried Scout officials described the young men as "festooned with badges" and singled out one "gorgeous creature" who the police caught wearing "everything in the book and a few extras." (1) In donning the uniform, the young border-jumpers traded on the legitimacy of the Scout movement. They most likely reasoned that if one or two badges and a uniform brought greater respect and deference from colonial authorities and local African communities, then an elaborate uniform with a great many badges, pins, lanyards, shoulder knots, and epaulets would be even more effective.

The police record offers no insights into whether these young men were actually Scouts, but to a large degree their status did not really matter because even registered African Scouts sometimes used their uniforms for nonstandard purposes. There were three ways to wear a Scout uniform in colonial East Africa. The first way was by members of Scout troops sanctioned by the Kenya Boy Scout Association (KBSA). These were the only Africans with the legal right to wear the uniform. Second, there were unofficial African-run troops, many of which were sponsored by independent Christian churches, who developed their own unauthorized version of the movement while wearing illegally acquired trappings of Scout clothing. Lastly, young men and adults used the uniform for larcenous purposes by playing on the assumption that a properly dressed Scout was trustworthy and reliable. The Kenyan colonial government tried to deal with the second and third categories by making it crime for anyone who was not a member of the KBSA to wear Scout clothing and symbols.

British youth experts developed Scouting and its uniform to regiment and control adolescents. Conceived by General Sir Robert Baden-Powell at the turn of the twentieth century to promote national fitness, smooth over class tensions, and reduce juvenile delinquency in Edwardian Britain, Boy Scouting evolved into a popular youth movement that offered a romantic program of outdoor life as a cure for social disruption caused by industrialization and urbanization. Baden Powell made respect for authority a central focus of the movement, and Scouting spread around the globe as governments and youth leaders recognized its value in teaching patriotism and deference to the established political and social order.

The Scout program made the implicit promise that young males could be transformed into responsible and obedient members of society by dressing them in military-style uniforms. Assuming that industrial society freed young people from the bonds of adult authority before they acquired the moral convictions and self-discipline to make proper use of their new autonomy, Scout leaders sought to use the uniform to control and socialize potentially troublesome adolescents. (2) They drew young males into the carefully controlled hierarchical world of the Scout troop by dressing them in standardized and specialized adolescent clothing that was adventurous, elitist, and nurtured a sense of belonging. In this sense the Scout uniform was the uniform of adolescence. In theory, boys submitted to Scout discipline and deferred to larger social norms when they donned the uniform. If clothes made the man, then Scout uniforms made properly obedient and moral adolescents. Scouting and its military garb thus offered a means of controlling young males who threatened to slip the bonds of generational authority.

British officials introduced the movement in Africa to strengthen colonial rule. More specifically, they sought to defuse the broad challenge that African youth posed to both state and generational authority in British East Africa. …

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