Monday, February 16, 2009


"The kanga struts in style..." Wear it with a smile!

Kanga/Leso is a traditional rectangualr cloth from East Africa. The Kanga/leso usually have a wide border (pindo), central motif (mji), and writing (ujumbe or jina). Kangas are usually printed in bold designs and bright colours.

Kanga illustration. (1) = pindo, (2) = mji, (3) = jina

Kangas originated on the coast of East Africa in the mid 19th century. The Kangas/Lesos were inspired by the Portuguese traders handkerchiefs "lenço". There are conflicting stories as to how the Kanga came about. One source notes that a group of ladies in Zanzibar got the idea of buying printed kerchiefs in lengths of six, from the bolt of cotton cloth from which "lenço" were usually cut off and sold singly. They then cut the six into two lengths of three, and sewed these together along one side to make 3-by-2 sheet; or bought different kinds of kerchiefs and sewed them back together to form very individualistic designs.
Another source states that the The Indian traders in Mombasa and Zanzibar used to cut up rolls of scarves in the size of a Kanga and it seems that they got the idea of having designs made in this size.

This new design gained popularity and soon printed kanga/leso pieces were being sold as single unit fabrics with different designs. The original designs allegedly had dark backgrounds and white spots sprinkled across it. As a result the "lenço" was referred to as the Kanga after the the guinea fowl which has an elegant spotty plumage.
Kangas originially were designed and printed in the far east countries such as India. Today you can find Kangas printed in African countries such as Kenya & Tanzania.
Swahili sayings on the kangas/leso is attributed to a local famous trader in Mombasa, Kaderdina Hajee Essak aka Abdulla. His many kanga designs, formerly distinguished by the mark "K.H.E. - Mali ya Abdulla", often included a proverb. At first, the sayings, aphorisms or slogans were printed in Arabic script, later in Roman letters.other purposes such as wall hanging
Kangas can be worn in different styles. Amongst the coastal communities in East Africa women tend to dorn the Kanga by wearing two matching pieces aka 'Doti' . One is piece is used to wrap the head and the upper torso whereas the other piece is wraped around the waist to cover the lower torso. The kanga/leso cloth is also used by designers and dressmakers to create modern garments like dresses, shirts, trouser etc. Kanga/leso is also used for other purposes such as wall hanging, table clothes, bed spreads and other functional as well as decorative purposes.

Kanga/leso has aso been used as platform to send messages, and even mobilize communities be it political or for other social purposes.

According to Mahfoudha Alley Hamid 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.
...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.
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,... 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.

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 ... a divorced woman leaves behind a pair for her ex-husband, which is an omen for another marriage. ...They [Kanga's] are used as shawls during religious or traditional ceremonies.Source:
The 101 wonders of `khanga` and many more to come

Photos by

Kanga's/leso's have also graced some famous faces in the global community.

George Bush face printed on Kanga during his visit to Tanzania in 2008

Barack Obama face printed on Kangas following his historic win during the 2008 USA presidential elections



Mama Shujaa said...

Fantastic post!!!

Mama Shujaa

varun said...

ncie range!!Shawls and Scarves

Biche said...

Wow! I am a big lover of Kangas, so this post was a pure delight to see and read.

Thank you.

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Anonymous said...

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Mzee wa Changamoto said...

Awesome post.
Thanx for writing

emily said...

A kanga is one very precious piece of cloth within the East Africa communities. Your article is very informative. Keep us posted on new development in the world of Kangas.