Mambo! (Hi!) I am Jovita Byemerwa and I am from Tanzania. My native language is Kiswahili, which is spoken mainly in Tanzania and Kenya, and is rapidly growing in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
I would like to share a little bit of my culture with you through a Tanzanian piece of cloth called ‘Kanga’ (or you might call it a ‘Leso’ in Kenya). Kanga is a famous East African piece of cloth, rectangular in shape, which is mainly used by women. Made of pure cotton, Kanga is available in a lot of colors and designs and, in most cases, it comes with a written message associated with it. It covers half of the body from the waist to the foot. Kanga is a woman’s best companion: it can be used as a towel, to cover the hair when needed, to carry a baby behind your back, and even to provide support while carrying a bucket of water on top of your head.
Although mainly used by women, both men and boys also use Kanga while inside the house! Kanga can be given as a gift from a husband to a wife, by children to their mother, and from a friend to a friend. Kangas with thankful or encouraging words can be given as a present— those with strong messages are often used to challenge the neighbors, or to teach a lesson to a rebellious person.
This famous but simple piece of cloth can tell us a lot about the culture of East Africa— a body covering culture. Given the fact that the temperature of East Africa is very warm, one would expect that the cultural clothing would be something that covers less parts of the body. On the contrary, the Kiswahili culture involves a lot of covering up of the female body, and Kanga provides the best way of doing it. It is light enough to not overheat the body, long enough to cover most parts of the body, and colorful enough to still look attractive when worn.
When I am at home, I wear Kanga on many different occasions. I have so many different pieces of Kangas, and sometimes I use my mother’s or my aunts’ Kangas. The most frequent use of Kanga to me is while cooking; I like to use it as an apron to protect my clothes from getting dirty. Usually, I would put on a Kanga if we have visitors (especially older men) as a sign of body decency and appreciation of my culture. Many times when I want to visit my close by friends during the evenings, I will put on a Kanga on top of my skirt not only for decency (especially if my skirt is short), but also for feeling like a regular Tanzanian girl. Most of my friends and neighbors know that I have studied abroad for a long time and the way I dress up can tell a lot about how westernized I have become. Since Westernization is considered negative (due to the fight against colonial influence in Tanzania), I always like to dress and appear just like any other girl of my age in Tanzania. Kanga has always been my refuge in this, since by wearing it, I completely look like any other girl in Tanzania (and this feels very good!).
Kanga is also very central to national, regional and family celebrations. Kangas with national flag designs are always worn during national celebrations of Independence, the Republic Formation, the Revolution of Zanzibar, and the Union of Tanzania and Zanzibar. These Kangas will often have a design of national flag or a picture of a historical event, and words such us “Udumu muungano wa Tanganyika na Zanzibar,” which means, ‘’Long live the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar!” Each political party also has a Kanga design of their own to advertise and gain support from the people.
Church celebrations also utilize Kangas to send certain messages to people. During weddings, Kanga with words addressed to the bride and bridegroom are always given as a present, or even worn during the celebrations! In addition, Kangas with a picture of the family member who passed away are always worn during the funeral of the loved family member.
If you ever visit East Africa, you will appreciate the value and the use of Kanga. Can you think of any piece of cloth from your country that compares to the value of Kanga in East Africa?
Jovita is Brown SLE’s Kiswahili fellow for Spring 2014.
Want to learn more about her? Read on here!