Sunday, February 20, 2011

FF: Wearing Wisdom: Kanga Cloth

A woman of 1890s Zanzibar in a kanga ensemble (Zanzibar history)

Everyone has that one basic piece of clothing that they can never have enough of. For some, it's sturdy jeans. For others, bandannas or a handbag for every occasion. Personally, I collect black tank tops (those who associate with me can attest to this). However, rarely do these 'vital' pieces communicate something traditional, emotional, or spiritual. Imagine a garment with the same amount of appreciation as a good pair of sweat pants with abilities of a billboard and you have the Kanga (or Khanga) cloth. The Kanga is an expression of wisdom, joy, history, and self-empowerment. It emerged from traditions of slavery in East Africa to become the national garment of many African nations today... but I'm getting ahead of myself. What is a kanga and how did it come to be?

Two Swahili women dressed to the nines in their kanga (Zanzibar History)

Simply, a kanga is a broad rectangle of cotton (long enough to span a woman's arms and either knee or full-length) dyed in a variety of colors and decorated with designs. A motif runs all the way around the cloth in a border, which often includes proverbs and sayings in Kiswahili integrated into the design. That's it! Of course, this is just a physical description. Out of context Kanga are beautiful to look at, but they become even more lovely when you discover their history.

Origins: Affluence from Slavery
As with many cornerstones of national culture, there are varying accounts of how they were developed, except for one factor- slavery. As slaves, women were only allowed to wear one garment: a white piece of cotton cloth wrapped around themselves like a dress or shawl. In 1833, Britain ratified the Slavery Abolition Act, which declared all slaves in the British Empire free. While the bodies of these men and women were liberated, the minds of their countrymen were not- a stigma persisted against those that could be identified as former slaves and often this could be ascertained by the old white garment of bondage. Needless to say, a change of costume was needed.

A market scene in Easter Africa, some of the women wearing kanga. (Zanzibar History)

Here's where the story splits. Some say the kanga began when newly-emancipated women painted the white slave cloth with color. The predominant theory is that resourceful ladies in the port cities would purchase or trade handkerchiefs, cut six of these apart, and sew them together into individualized garment cloths. No matter how they developed, it gave women who were former slaves a new identity and sense of self-worth. The color, design, and arrangement of their kanga became a blank canvas upon which they could unleash their self-expression.

In these early days of kanga, floral, linear, and Islamic-inspired geometric designs were popular. As demand increased European, Indian, and Middle Eastern traders saw the worth in selling more varieties and colors (and the cunning idea to sell entire cloths rather than just handkerchiefs). Sayings began to be printed in the 1930s and caught on quickly.

Tanzanian ladies wearing hand-painted kanga. (MyTanzania)

Kanga Today
Today you can find kanga cloths in every color of the rainbow and an astounding array of designs: from maps and animals to flowers, paisley, landscapes, and even household scenes. They have the prevalence of t-shirts or jeans in the West, but carry just as much meaning as in the 19th century. Kanga are presented as gifts between family, friends, and spouses. A kanga given as a wedding present is different from one given as a "get well" or "thank you" present. Designs and colors are deemed socially appropriate by occasion, season, and who is offering- for example, during certain times of the month, red and black kangas are encouraged to be worn. It's said that if husbands don't give their wives a kanga every now and again, it's shameful and abusive- particularly if she doesn't receive a few after a child birth.

Typically kanga are a woman's garment, though men will wear them as a lounging garment inside their own home.

A modern kanga (Rakuten)

How Kanga Are Worn
- Kanga can be wrapped as a skirt around the waist, similar to a sarong
- Perfume and oils are often used to scent the kanga to convey a woman's mood and flirtatiousness, particularly as eveningwear.
- They can be wrapped over one or both shoulders like a shawl.
- Teenage girls wear their kanga loosely under the arms. Note: if you wear a kanga thus and you're not under 18, you are advertising that you're immature.
- Old or unwanted (i.e. that sweater your grandmother gave you for Christmas) are often used or transformed into apron or headscarves.
- Fashioning them into headwraps or turbans are also common.
- Infants are often swaddled in kanga from the moment they're born. No wonder East African people are so fond of them! Babies are also slung across their mother's back in a kanga!
- Upon death, a body is often wrapped in kangas as it's prepared for burial, per Muslim traditions.

Nowadays kanga are made into bags, dresses, jackets, and trousers- so no matter how someone is feeling, they can express it on their bodies.

Imagine a bustle, scarf, or sash made from a kanga cloth for a well-traveled feel to your steampunk? The design and colors are beautiful, not to mention printed on cotton cloth, which means that it would be easy to maintain. Skirts, shawls, headwraps... the possibilities are endless!

Another modern kanga. The phrase reads: There is someone in the world to love for everyone. (Watatu)

Helpful Links
-Kanga: It is More Than What Meets the Eye by Mahfoudha Alley Hamid is an article all about kanga, its uses, and the myriad ways it's used to communicated. Great source!
-Origins of Kanga Cloth is another great article on the history of kanga, from its origins amongst emancipated slaves.
- Leo and Kesho sell kanga for 15 Euro apiece!
-Rayela's shop on etsy sells a variety of fair trade crafts and textiles, including kanga.
- Watatu has a wonderful article about kanga and their use by women all over the world.


  1. I collected several yards of cloth from my travels in different places. The wrapping of a rectangle of fabric around ones body as clothing is almost universal. At my house the cloth entered a new phase and has been used for picnics, tents, baby-doll hammocks, bed covers, wall hangings, window coverings, puppet shows, and other various delights.

    I needed to be reminded to tell my children the origin and intended use. Thank you.

  2. Thank you...I will be attending the Steampunk Expo in Michigan as my first steam event and I was looking for more multicultural ways to dress...Your articles are really helpful especially since I have many pieces of African fabrics in my closet that I can repurpose...

  3. I received a Kanga with the words: acheni majungu kumpenda yeye ni chaguo langu. Can someone translate this for me?

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