Many explanations have been put forward to explain the origin of the popular wrap cloth known as kanga, khanga or “leso” in eastern Africa. According to some sources, the kanga were small pieces of cloth that were used by the Japanese as handkerchiefs. These pieces were then joined to form one big piece that is nowadays referred to as the kanga. The brightness of the colours reminded Africans of the guinea fowls hence the name kanga. According to Dr Rose Marie Beck, this piece of cloth was invented around the 1880s in Zanzibar and imported from Europe with patterns and inscriptions already imprinted on it.
The kanga is a widely spread printed cloth, mainly used by women as a dress. Measuring about 110 cm wide and 150 long, Dr Beck writes, the kanga is defined by a border (pindo), a central field (mji) and it usually carries a proverbial inscription (jina) around its end.
Dr Beck, who conducted research on the kanga between 1994/1995 and 1996 in Mombasa and from1995 onwards in various archives in the Netherlands and Switzerland, says the kanga played an important role in the emancipation of slaves and their integration into the Muslim and Swahili community of the East African coast.
Other than women who wear it while working in the fields or indoor while attending home chores, the cloth has gained acceptance within the public domains. Many kanga pieces are seen in the video of Eric Wainaina-Oliver Mtukudzi’s song, Twende Twende, that has been adopted by Orange Mobile phone company in advertising its service.
In homes it may be used as table clothes, pillow covers and seat covers. Women also use it as baby carriers on their backs. As part of dressing it is either used as a head wrap, a turban or a wrapper around the waist.
Besides its use as a piece of cloth, the kanga is also a tool of communication and piece of art. It is used to tackle prohibited subjects in polite society: mainly conflicts, envy, jealousy, discontent, quarrels, and sexuality.
Kangas wear out rather fast, usually in under three months of purchase; only those kangas considered special may survive for more than 12 months. Over the years that the kanga) has been in existence, certain thematic domains dominate. As a result, similar or identical patterns are used over and over again and very few topics addressed.
The fact that that no one is held responsible for the message being relayed makes the entire process ambiguous. The proverbs are ambiguous in a way as they use the habitual tense (hu); e.g.”mtaka yote hukosa yote” thus they do not address any one specifically.
Swahili women, and those who understand Kiswahili in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, eastern Congo-Kinshasa, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, for instance, are mainly interested in the inscriptions more than the patterns. If bought for, the inscriptions are meant to reflect their personal lives and thus it is common practice to witness breakdown in relationship between friends and loved ones just because of the message conveyed by a particular piece of kanga.
Illiteracy among some of the women is yet another obstacle that contributes negatively towards communication by means of kanga. The women rely on others to read for them and only memorise the proverbs. When confronted for the negative message inscribed on the kanga, they hardly know a thing hence one does not know whether they wanted to communicate the same message or it is because of lack of knowledge that they bought the kanga.
Communicating by means of the kanga is not always socially appreciated. The women who do so may lose their integrity and social standing.
Pictures by Wikipedia.org