The 101 wonders of ‘khanga’ and many more to come
Posted: Sunday August 17, 2008 9:51 PM BT
By Mwondoshah Mfanga
We are in a wedding at Kochoko Village in Pemba, where Mariam Shariff, who is the bride from this clove growing island in Tanzania is marrying Abu Hamsani a Mainlander from Kigoma.
All women are dressed in kangas (in a sort of an informal uniform, creating a spectacular pattern) - one around the waist, another wrapped and thrown over the shoulders and the third clad on the head-as they dance, watch and cheer to Msewe, a common traditional 'ngoma' that feature in many celebrations here.
Then the Master of Ceremony, a man, who is also adorning a kanga-similar to the one worn by the rest of event's stakeholders, notifies the invited guests that it is time for them to hand over their presents to the brides.
Then the women line up as they dance towards the bride as they unwrap the parcels they are carrying, each unfolding a pair of kanga as they tie them end to end and dance around the bride before they present them to her.
These are, but an iota of the marvels of kanga, a roughly two-metre long and one-meter wide rectangular wear initially worn by Swahili women along the coasts of East Africa, the Comoros, Somalia and central Africa which today has become a global wear.
It is a cloth, just like any other, but the colours it carries, the usually penetrating and communicative message that goes with it and its adoption in the day to day life among the people of East Africa, makes it a special wear and gear.
The three aspects makes it differ from the pagens worn in most Francophone Africa and wears like mama Benz, kitenge and kente common in Nigerian, Ghana and the rest of West Africa.
But according to Trui Goslinga-Lindeboom of Kali Mata Ki Jai Foundation, a maker and distributor of the wear in East Africa, kangas would not be a different cloth from the rest of other clothes if they were without the communicative message or jina.
Look at this: 'Bahati ni upepo sasa upo kwangu', meaning 'Being lucky is like (the blowing of) the wind, now (it's blowing) on my side. This also literally means, indeed, don't expect to be lucky all the time.
'Embe mbivu yaliwa kwa uvumilivu,'meaning, 'A ripe mango has to be eaten slowly'. Of course the writing doesn't refer to an actual "ripe mango". It refers to a love partner who is willing and ready. S/he has to be handled gently and with care.
Nobody knows exactly the origin of this wear, but various schools of thought have attempted to date it back to 1870s East Africa.
While Hanby and Bygott states that its origin was with the Zanzibar women stitching lesos together Anthony John Troughear, an Australian journalist who lived and worked in Kenya gives another version.
He asserts that Charles New, in his book, "Life, Wanderings and Labours in Eastern Africa," describes Mombasa women starting a new fashion in the 1980s by sewing leso (headscarfs) together, three in a row stitched to another two, to make a larger leso with six panels.
Troughear thinks that the claim that kangas originated in Zanzibar is not correct. "Zanzibar just happened to be a place where big Indian cloth merchants were.
Those merchants only copied the Mombasa design when they saw it was becoming popular.
The cloth merchants quickly made the six panels into one and it later evolved into the style which is common today," he says.
Yet some schools of thought claim that it is an incorporation of imported materials, textiles and styles by African societies into own clothing traditions.
The kangas were worn mainly by women eager to establish their emancipated identity after the abolition of slavery on Zanzibar. They wrapped one kanga around the waist, another around the upper body, and a third around the head and thrown over the shoulder, covering the body in the Muslim fashion.
It was then that the textile industries in Manchester and Holland soon caught up with this new market and began manufacturing similarly sized single cotton pieces that were intended to be sold in pairs.
It was not until the 1950's that more and more kangas have been designed and printed in Tanzania, Kenya and other countries in Africa.
For a century now kanga designs have evolved from simple spots and borders to a huge variety of elaborate patterns of every conceivable motif and colour associated with the cultural developments in the region and the world. And this is depicted in the pictorial and messages (normally proverbs or sayings) carried by many designs nowadays.
Look at this: 'Hata ukinuna buzi tumelichuna' meaning, 'You may be angry, but we've skinned the big goat!' The literal translation of the writing is very simple, but its meaning is rather hidden.
You have to know some Kiswahili slang to be able to understand it. "Big goat" means 'buzi' from goat meaning 'mbuzi'.
Now "buzi" is a Kiswahili slang for a well-to-do (temporary) male sex partner. And 'kuchuna buzi' that is 'to skin the big goat's is another slang for sleeping with such a man while eking your life necessities from him.
As you can now realise, this is not a very polite saying. Someone is boasting that she has actually slept with some rich man even if the other lady is angry about that. That man might even be the other ladyâ€™s lover or husband - giving her the reason to be angry about it.
Such messages are not only communicated through kanga in East Africa; Taarab, the most popular music in the region preferred mostly during wedding and other events of public nature, supports the kanga culture in many ways.
The messages emanate from the daily communication, but most often from Taarab songs and the dancers who normally don and flash kanga as they dance the music.
So as such, there is a dialectical relationship between the two, each supporting and promoting the existence of the other.
New kanga designs keep appearing in great varieties: simple or intricate abstract patterns; homely themes such as chickens, crops, babies and fertility; pictures of famous attractions like mountains, monuments and wildlife; even pop stars!
However there are noticeable regional differences. For example, most of the kangas with mottos are made in Kenya, while those commemorating social or political events are more common in Tanzania.
Kanga also plays the role of post cards, which until recently has been a culture common in the West. Look at this: 'Kanga nenda na urembo, shani urembo na shani' meaning, 'Kanga, go with embellishment; wonder, elegance and wonder.'
As if talking to kanga, the writing goes with the whole idea of giving kanga as gifts to loved ones.
Here the gift giver "instructs" the kanga to go to his or her lover with the message to confirm the relationship. And with a picture for example, of a fruit, flower, boat, or a bird drawn on it, this could mean good upbringing or just the appreciation of beauty.
On the other hand, a picture of a lion, shark, or any such kind of dangerous animal could signal the sense of danger or a clear warning.
And finally what about this: 'Kila mwenye kusubiri hakosi kitu' meaning 'A patient person never misses (a thing)' or 'With patience, you always stand to win'.
Such messages are common particularly during this period of the year as people are eagerly looking forward for the Eid el Hajj, Christmas and New Year festivities.
Just like the way campaign managers in western elections print T-shirts for sending their messages to the voters, kanga is an important tool for mobilising people in East Africa.
Whereas T-shirts apply equally well to men and women, kanga is something more appealing to women though it applies also also to all in different ways.
All in all, by winning the support of women one is more than assured of election victory! Due to its simplicity in wearing, kanga is often used in political rallies as a form of identity for people supporting a particular political party.
Kanga has also been used to mobilise people in public health campaigns as well as creating awareness to particular development projects.
When words are difficult to articulate with a mouth, inscribe them on kanga and wait for the results.
Although cheap in price, the power of the wear in the Swahili culture is unimaginable and carries more weight than any other cloth in political rallies as it can go as a dress the high table, as presentations to guests and vehicles' decorator.
The most interesting side of kanga is how the colours inscribed in it take the form of spoken words and deliver the message more than oral communication itself in the daily life of Swahili culture in east and central Africa.
According to Mahfoudha Alley Hamid (now a Member of Parliament) kanga's versatility, colours and inscribed messages have a special meaning in Swahili culture in that the wearer can communicate to a lover or husband or even foe that she is ready to marry, divorce, go to bed or call it quits just by the mere changing of colours of the wear.
Hamid, writing for PAA, a local airline magazine, says among the coastal East Africans, there is a tradition of sending a sanduku (suitcase) to the bride to be, containing the bride's attire, household items and even gold ornaments. The success of the sanduku, she says, depends on the number of pairs of kangas it contains.
"Kanga, a simple piece of cotton cloth is so strong and powerful and mythical, that mesmerises the womenfolk. It represents art, beauty, culture and customs of coastal women which have now spread to many part of Africa and the world," she says.
An indispensable part of the East African women's wardrobe, it may look like the normal part of a woman's attire, but there is no more to it than meets the eye.
Himid further says that it is considered a source of embarrassment to the husband if he does not buy his wife a pair of kanga every now and then.
"I would not have minded if my husband had not bought me a chicken to revamp my lost energy after a difficult child birth", says Khadija Mohammed a recently delivered young woman, "but I would have minded a lot if he would not have bought me a pair of kanga as a gift."
On concluding Ramadhan and in preparing for Eid el Fitr, many houses do not remain all calm as long as men have not bought a pair of the wear for their wives.
Many wives take it as a presentation for duty of preparing iftar and daku (fast breaking and night meals) throughout the month.
In the more cultured societies, kanga colours have a special meaning. Some women would wear kangas bearing red and black colours during menstruation, writes Himid further.
"This made the husband aware that you were in the red and cannot give him any favours," she quotes Mtumwa, a Zanzibari woman in her 1980s as saying. Thus without words, the wife would inform her husband of her state.
White kangas were adorned during the full moon to symbolise the whiteness of the woman's heart towards her husband. Other bright coloured kangas were worn to match colourful waist beads of the woman to add to her attraction.
The messages on the kangas play a great role in the value of the wearer. The value is not only financial, but also emotional. A message in the kanga can make or break a friendship.
"The first thing I did when I received a gift of kanga from my husband was to read the message." says Khadija.
"I was really amused to see that the message read 'Titi la mama li tamu,' meaning the mother's milk is the best, this made me realize that Hamisi wanted me to breastfeed our baby."
During weddings, women from both the bride and groom's families choose a design as an informal uniform to be worn during the celebrations, to solidify the unity of the two families.
A bride would wear a special design kanga with small crosses and rosettes called Kisutu as a symbol of her entering adulthood, as it is the case with the Maasai women. The Kisutu kanga bears four colours, white, black, blue and blood red.
According to Himid these colours are not without significance, the red colour bears witness to her virginity, the black is the pain of being deflowered and the white is the colour of the male seed which she is going to see for the first time.
Himid's research however, falls short of many uses of kanga. In Swahili culture, when the woman became pregnant, kanga was used as veil.
It is labour time and you want her to deliver in far away hospital (not on the way) a knot on the kanga she is donning was enough to prevent her from delivering.
When she delivers it was the wear that served as nappy and towel for the newly born. When the baby goes for a call of nature, kanga was the automatic recycled toilet tissue.
When she travels, kanga was used to tuck the baby on her back and when she wants it to rest she made a bed or a seat for it using the same rectangular cloth.
Suddenly the husband has a running stomach or an impromptu guest at home, only donning kanga made the brisk movements (activities) easily accomplished.
In divorce, a pair of kanga is given to her by her in-laws so that she can be washed in them to mark the end of their marital relationship just as the same in-laws did during the betrothing period,
Similarly, a divorced woman leaves behind a pair for her ex-husband, which is an omen for another marriage.
Himid concludes that the kanga tells you immediately whether the wearer is in a happy or sad occasion. Widows leave only the face and hands open.
A mother who has lost her child has her stomach tied tightly with kanga showing that at the particular moment, she is experiencing the same pangs of labour.
Kangas are versatile, used as corsets for a woman just delivered . Tightly clad around the midriff so that the enlarged uterus quickly shrinks to its normal size, making the woman retain her figure.
Yet reduced pieces of kanga serve as pads when a woman observes the red days. Moreover, they are used as shawls during religious or traditional ceremonies.
And lastly is the kanga wonder in witchcraft. Most often witchdoctors advise their clients to submit either multi colour clothes like kanga so that once treated it would be easy for them to achieve what they want and it would be difficult for the same to be bewitched.
The belief here is that single-coloured clothes make it easy for sorcerers to get hold of their subjects and so the charm is in multi colour wears.
In a word, kangas can expose love, jealousy, hatred, rivalry and a host of other things. However, care is always taken to see that regardless of how much one likes the design, if the message is not the correct one, then a sacrifice to the design is made as the saying goes: "The kanga struts in style..." Wear it with a smile!
Kanga has brought a great demand in business while acting as a form of communication especially among women today, and dealers and manufactures alike own huge businesses worldwide.
East Africa is regarded as the womb of kanga. Foreigners, be black or white, Africans or non Africans, all leave with a pair or two after visiting the continent.
However, globalisation has of late changed not only this intrinsic culture of the East African cost, but has also affected the market of the wear and even the producers in many ways.