The kanga is a rectangle of pure cotton cloth with a border all around it, printed in bold designs and bright colours. It is as long as the span of your outstretched arms and wide enough to cover you from neck to knee, or from breast to toe. Kangas are usually bought and worn as a pair – called a “doti”.
Kangas are the perfect gift. Husbands give kangas to wives. children to their mothers, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend. Men can sleep in kangas, and often wear them around the house; women wear them everywhere; babies are virtually born into them, and are usually carried in a soft sling of kanga cloth. Kangas are extremely popular throughout East Africa not only for clothing but for their multiple uses; no-one can ever have too many!
Kangas originated on the coast of East Africa in the mid 19th century. As the story goes, some stylish ladies in Zanzibar got the idea of buying printed kerchiefs in lengths of six, from the bolt of cotton cloth from which kerchiefs were usually cut off and sold singly.
The new design was called “leso” after the kerchief squares that had originally been brought to Africa by Portuguese traders. The leso quickly became popular than the other kind of patterned cloth available. Before long, enterprising coastal shopkeepers sent away for special designs, printed like the six-together leso pieces, but as a single unit of cloth.
Kanga designs have evolved over the years, from simple spots and borders to a huge variety of elaborate patterns of every conceivable motif and color. For a century, kangas were mostly designed and printed in India, the Far East and Europe. Even today, you will see kangas that were printed in China or Japan. But since the 1950’s, more and more kangas have been designed and printed in Tanzania, Kenya, and other countries in Africa.
Early this century, Swahili sayings were added to kangas. Supposedly this fashion was started by a locally famous trader in Mombasa, Kaderdina Hajee Essak, also known as “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. Many of them have the added charm (or frustration!) of being obscure or ambiguous in their meaning. If you find a motto that you can’t figure out, ask several different Swahili speakers. You will get an equal number of different explanations! Some typical kanga sayings are listed on the following page, for your edification and enjoyment.
New kanga designs keep appearing in great variety: – 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! 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.
The Kanga is still evolving. Like the T-shirt, but incomparably more elegant and useful, it is a valuable medium for personal political, social and religious expression. Many fashion designers in East Africa have taken Kanga to another level and expressing fashion in European countries.
ChilliMango have beautiful creative Kanga designs on hoodies, sweat shirts, pullovers and many more check out their blogspot for more information http://chillimangoclothing.wordpress.com/. In Botswana we have designers such as Di-Monde Reign Designs who also use the Kanga. Check out more on http://www.facebook.com/DiMondeReignDesigns?fref=ts
Watch the video below on Kanga for Women and the different meanings and sayings on the kanga