Kangas are large, rectangular cotton cloths (c. 150 x 100 cm) that are brightly coloured and have a distinctive, printed text. They are worn by women living along the east coast of Africa, especially in Kenya and Tanzania. Kangas are also worn by some groups in Oman, due to long standing, historical connections between the various countries.
Kangas and similar garments have been part of the East African, Swahili dress code since the late 19th century. Throughout the decades kangas adopted textual and decorative elements from Arab, African, European and Indian sources. The garments are regarded as an essential item of a woman’s wardrobe and are worn on a daily basis in and around the home and outside, as well as on important occasions such as weddings and funerals.
Their designs, colours and texts are not static. They are constantly being modified and adapted to the current economic and political situation, as well as customer demand. The designs on older kangas were made locally or in India, with hand printing using large, wooden blocks. More recent examples, however, tend to be machine printed using a system of rollers. The modern versions are usually made in Tanzania and Kenya for their local markets. Examples from India are sold in Oman as well as in East Africa, but they are not as highly valued, as both the cloth and designs tend to be of a poorer quality.
Kanga designs and messages
The kanga cloths are normally bought in pairs. They always have a decorative border (pindo), and a different pattern in the central panel (mji). The main patterns range from simple geometric shapes to depictions of locally important buildings and events. The distinctive feature of the kanga is the saying (jina), printed along the lower edge of the central panel. Most of the sayings are in Swahili, the common language of East Africa. In the older versions, however, these sayings were written in Arabic script, more recent ones, however, normally use Latin script. Occasionally sayings in English can be found, but these are generally intended for the tourist market. All of the sayings contain messages about friendship, love and politics. In fact, they may refer to just about anything.
How are they worn?
Women use the kangas in various ways: for carrying their baby on their backs, as a general wrapping around the body, and as sheets at night. When worn as clothing, one kanga is wrapped around the body at chest height in order to cover the breasts and lower part of the body. The other kanga is draped around the head and shoulders, acting as a modesty veil. Nowadays, kangas are sometimes made into a blouse and trouser outfit.