The Wonders of the Kanga

The Wonders of the Kanga

A kanga is regular piece of cloth, which has a border running around all the four sides and has a central motif often depicting a flower. What make the kanga different from other African print cloth are the proverbs that are printed on the lower part of the cloth and which are always boxed.
Kanga as a form of clothing gained ascendancy on the East African coast in the late 19th century.  Prior to that women on the East African coast wore kaniki (an indigo cloth) or marekani (calico) which were both tied as a wrapper under the armpits.

Most drawings showing women on the coast around this time used one piece of cloth which they tied around their bodies and gathered in one pleat over the left breast.  With the advent of Kanga, women started using two pieces of cloth, one for wrapping around the body and one for covering the head or as a shawl.

By 1900, women on the East African Coast had started wearing kanga in the way it is worn now and it had become the accepted form of clothing.  The word kanga, derives its meaning from the guinea fowl, sometimes the kanga was called and is still known as leso.

One of the most striking aspects of the kanga is the colors. Manufacturers somehow discovered that the more brilliant the colors, the more attractive it would be to the consumers and they were not wrong.

What we know is that after the kaniki and plain merekani, kanga became popular because of its vibrant colors and because it disassociated women from slavery, as women of all social and economic classes started wearing the kanga and we can safely say that it merged the social classes, in clothing, something that had never happened, before.

How did kanga become popular?

The most striking contribution towards the popularization of kanga has been through ngoma/dance.  Ngoma groups used the kanga as sare (uniform) because it was cheap, easily accessible, colorful and also because it was easier to wear.  The kanga doesn’t need stitching, apart from the hem which is sewn on both sides to prevent the threads from running and the material from getting frayed.  The hem itself varies in width from time to time.  Sometimes the hem is very thin, barely half an inch in width sometimes the hem goes up to one and a quarter inches in width.  The width of the hem depends on the preference of the wearer.Another reason why it became popular is because of the jina/the writing on the kanga. The Swahili have a rich oral tradition in the form of folklore and poetry. When taarab music was introduced in East Africa, in the early 1900s, very few people had access to record players or santuri to listen to the songs. People relied on their ears to catch racy tunes which they hummed and some of those words used to depict unrequited love or to depict a certain social situation, which in time were incorporated on the kanga as jina.

We do not know how the trend to have proverbs or jina or words on the kanga started.  It could be the first jina ever to be printed on a kanga was ‘Idd Mubarak’ to celebrate the festival of idd ul haj or idd ul fitr and it became fashionable to have it as writing on a kanga.  Henceforth, most kanga had to have a jina.  It is important to note here that the word jina means name but it is used in this context to describe the words printed on a kanga.  We don’t know how the words came to be referred to as a Jina, we can only speculate.

 It could be because the word started off as a reference to a particular title of some popular song at that time, hence the word jina since in Swahili we refer to the title of a song as jina la wimbo meaning the name of the song.  The word jina became generic for any writing on a kanga.  It is important to note here that the women on the whole tend to buy a kanga for its jina and not the design or the colors, although they too play a part in the attraction of a kanga, but to a smaller degree.


 In the late 19th century, ngoma like the lelemama; msanja, fanta and canada were introduced by Ngindo and Manyema women as part of unyago, the rites de passage.  Groups were often called to perform at functions like weddings and great emphasis was put on the number of groups invited, the tuzo (gifts) given to the performers and the food served by the hostess.

The kanga played an important role here because apart from being worn as a uniform, it was worn around the hips during dancing and it also acted as a form of gift.  The host would give out several pairs of kanga to the leader of the ngoma and to the best dancers.

They in turn would present a few pairs to the host as a gift.  This gift giving of kanga extended beyond one ngoma group whereby matrons of different groups would give each other gifts of kanga while their groups were performing.  This later extended to the giving of kanga as a gift from one group to the other so if one group had given out 30 pairs of kanga to a rival group, that group would be obliged to return a gift of 60 pairs.  Those 60 pairs would be paid back with 120 pairs.

This system known as potlatch in sociology, usheha in Swahili is a form of obligatory exchanges in a competitive spirit which can take on a combative dimension and can result and has often done so, in bankruptcy of the two parties.  In fact the gifts were often received with trepidation because a similar gift would have to be given back, but doubled.  This form of gift exchange or potlatch gave rise to the saying “mla ng’ombe mmoja hulipa wawili’ (if you eat one cow you would have to pay two).

Though the potlatch of kanga started off as a form of camaraderie, it later took a combative aspect and ngoma groups borrowed heavily from Indian merchants to pay back the proverbial two cows.  Some women pawned their gold trinkets or even sold it off to gain prestige in society.  Houses were pawned or sold; marriages broke up; children were neglected; and pandemonium broke out.

This form of obligatory gift exchange started in the 1930s and by the 1950s, it had become so competitive that ngoma groups which had numerous numbers, both as dancers and as cheerleaders, had to devise new strategies to be one up on their rivals.  This took the form of passing a float which was paraded in all the popular streets so the population would see what one group was giving the other.  The floats were accompanied by songs and dance and much fracas.  This marks the emergence of lelemama as a form of mobilization among women.  It also marked ngoma as a great leveler of women in society. 


From the 1930s various kanga were printed to commemorate specific occasions.  For example when Queen Elizabeth 2nd had her coronation, in 1952 a special kanga was printed to commemorate the occasion.

This trend continued to the time of TANU’s campaign for independence when Indian manufacturers printed three kanga in 1959, 1960 and 1962 with the picture of Bibi Titi Mohamed to mobilize the public to vote for TANU and also to raise awareness among the public about the whole notion of independence, especially women voters.During the Second World War in the 1940s when imported goods were scarce due to war, a team of two brothers known as Saidi Abeid and Mohamed Abeid become innovative and started manufacturing kanga in Dar es Salaam, at Ilala. That type of kanga became known as Mohamed Abeid and though they were not at par with the imported kanga from India and Holland and Japan, they did serve the purpose, that of providing women with clothing during a period of acute shortages.

Ritual and symbol in kanga

The first cloth that is wrapped on a baby after it is born is a kanga.  In fact traditionally, a baby was wiped with clean rags from an old kanga and then a new piece of kanga was wrapped around the child.  This ensures a lifelong affair with the kanga for both boy and girl children.  The boys would grow up to buy their wives kanga, while the girls would continue wearing kanga to the day they die.


By the time a child starts to toddle, a kanga would be cut into a smaller piece and tied around the neck, draping the child.  This form of wearing is known as kishingoshingo (by the neck).  A boy would stop wearing a kanga when he has grown slightly older than that but when he undergoes jando (circumcision), a kanga would be tied as a wrapper until the wound heals.

A girl on the other hand would wear a kanga to madrasa, she would work in it, play in it and sleep in it.  The day she starts menstruating, she would be taken to her somo (trainer) who has to be given several pairs of kanga as a gift by the girl’s mother and aunts.  The somo would have to buy the girl at least two pairs of kanga on completion of the rites de passage and henceforth, they are bonded in the role of mentor confidant and counselor  on the part of the somo and pupil on the part of the girl for the rest of their lives.This somo/mwari relationship is considered sacred and a girl is expected to confide in her somo, be loyal to her and assist her whenever required. The somo is expected to advise, encourage and guide the mwari. This relationship is equivalent to the group therapy that many women’s groups in the western world opt to undergo in modern times and parallels can be drawn in the solidarity that western feminists are preaching currently, which have been in existence for a long time among Tanzanian women.

Rites de passage

Bi Kidawa Khamis say:” My somo Bi Kijakazi (may her soul rest in peace) guided me from the time I was 13 until I got married at 19. She saw me through several miscarriages, through the birth of my son, Khamis, through the death of my first husband, through my second marriage until her time arrived and she answered the call.

I remember when I first started menstruating. My mother called all my aunts from my maternal and my paternal side. She informed them of the event and my father’s sister, Bi Mwatumu suggested that Bi Kijakazi be my somo. Her own two daughters, (twins), were also Bi Kijakazi’s wari and she was respected in the society. My mother gave her permission and I was taken to my somo’s house for seven days to be taught about the facts of life. My mother bought three pairs of kanga for Bi Kijakazi and’ two pairs of kanga for me. She also sent a number of gifts to Bi Kijakazi like a cockerel, five kilos of rice, some halud perfume and about 5,000/= cash. I was given some utensils, a mat (utango) that I would be sitting on and sleeping on, a bar of soap and a prayer mat. My aunts each gave Bi Kijakazi a pair of kanga which amounted to a lot if you count my father’s five sisters, my mother’s three sisters, their sisters in law, their cousins and friends. In all she must have got about 25 pairs.

Nowadays the mother of the mwari would give a somo up to 20 pairs of kanga. If you add the gifts of kanga from the mwari’s aunt and other female relatives, the somo would get a hefty package, sometimes as many as 75 pairs.For example when a mwari gets married and is found a virgin her somo gets several pairs of kanga from the bride’s mother and other female relatives to congratulate her on having been a good teacher to her mwari and having ensured that the mwari is respectable.

Bi Mariam Salum:” At my wedding, my somo washed me in a pair of kanga that my mother had bought. This kanga is called sutu. It has a zig zag pattern on the two sides and has a design of small flowers, sometimes circles throughout the mji (centre). The wedding sutu are usually in black, maroon and white to denote the three aspects of life i.e. black for hair, white, for seminal fluid and red for menstrual blood.

There is a belief among my people that the word sutu is a derivative from the word msuto meaning make public or show to the people. In a way it is apt because during a wedding, the bride’s side sing a very traditional song as a way of msuto which goes “mlisema hayawi mbona yamekuwa…”, so it could be that the sutu kanga is a way of making public or showing off to society or to detractors that the wedding is taking place, despite gossip to the contrary.

Bi Kijakazi:” Some ethnic groups do not wear the sutu. It is mwiko (taboo) for them. Traditionally, the red/maroon, black and white colours have always been associated with ngoma za shetani (spirit possession and spirit dances). The shetani likes the colors red, especially the subiani. The rohani likes white while the vibwengo like black. There are

people who are possessed by all the three spirits therefore have to wear all the three colors while undergoing ‘kupungwa’ (spirit exorcism).

Bi Aziza Hemed:’ When I had my first baby and the subsequent ones too, I was given a kanga by my mother.  It was the mkaja.  My somo used it to tighten my stomach, like a corset so that it wouldn’t protrude later.  The mkaja is very important, and the practice is quite painful as the stomach is pushed in and a folded kanga is tightened around the waist.  We believe that the mkaja forces out all the impurities from the uterus, apart from acting as a corset to tighten stomach muscles.

This kanga has to come from the maternal side.  When a daughter gets married, her mother gets the ‘mkaja’ from a son-in-law as compensation for wearing that painful corset after having given birth to the bride.  Strangely, the mother of the son is not paid a ‘mkaja’ when he gets married.

My mother gave me a mbeleko (baby wrapper) when I gave birth to my children.  This mbeleko is symbolic because we normally carry babies in a sling on our backs called mbeleko and we use a kanga for that.  So although we may use different kanga as a sling, that symbolic mbeleko has to came from a new mother’s mother.

I used old kanga on all my babies as nappies.  They are the best as they are cool and prevent nappy rash.  I also use a kanga as a shawl, because they are cool, easy to wash and they dry fast.  In fact, a lot of my friends use it in same way.

Bi Sharou Bint Majura:” Kanga are a very important aspect of a sanduku (trunk), the gifts that a bride receives from her husband.  The sanduku has to have a number of gifts in it, like jewellery”, perfume, dresses, shoes, combs, some make up, bed sheets, towels etc., but kanga has to be the most important gift in the sanduku because when the sasambura (showing off gifts) takes place, people have to see how many pairs the bride received.

The sasambura is an art.  The person who dances and demonstrates and shows off the gifts has to be a good dancer and mimic.  The songs and gestures are quite lewd but since the sasambura takes place within the house and there are no men around, we can get as bawdy as we want.  There are special songs and dance steps for the sasambura.  The whole purpose is to show society the esteem that the bride and her family is held by the husband’s family, by their friends and the prestige that is accorded to the bride.  The more gifts, especially jewellery and kanga that “a bride gets, the more she is held in esteem.  People discuss the gifts some brides get years later because nothing like it had been seen before.

Bi Ajuza:” The kanga is also used as a canopy while the groom is eating ‘soro’ special dishes prepared by the somo in a feast immediately after the wedding ceremony.  The soro has to have sweet and savoury dishes and sherbets and juices to build the groom’s strength.  The kanga that is held over the heads of the groom and his companions has to have a romantic jina like ‘mahaba majani popote hukua (love is like grass it grows anywhere) or ‘heshima tukipeana, daima tutapendana’ (If we respect one another, our love would flourish forever) etc.

The kanga has to have colours like pinks, yellow and green.  It has to be in vogue at that particular time and it has to come from the somo.

Bi Mwamini (mama Midomo):’ I work as mkunga (traditional birth attendant) and have done so for the past 40 years.  I learnt the profession from my mother who learnt it from her own mother.  My family has produced wakunga as far back as we can remember.

The wakunga hold a special place in society and they are respected.  We have an informal oath to help any birthing mother, however poor and the tradition of paying wakunga with kanga is one way of ensuring that the pride of the new parents is not hurt, especially those who are poor.  So paying in kanga became the norm.  Nowadays those who still use traditional birth attendants pay them in cash and kanga, there are some who still prefer the traditional gift of kanga without cash.  So you will find the wakunga have a lot of kanga because they help deliver many babies.

Bi Sofia Aman:” When a woman dies, at least six pairs of kanga are required in the washing ceremony.  The body of the deceased has to be covered at all times to preserve the dignity of the dead person and kanga being light are used.  Those kanga are later given away to poor women as sadaka.  The bier of women has a kanga tied around it to show that the deceased is a woman.  It has to be a kanga from the deceased’s own collection.

Bi Mwanaisha Salim:” When we were young, women of my generation used the kanga as a sign language.  That was 40 years ago.  The language was not in the jina but in the colours.  For example we wore red kanga to show our husbands we were menstruating and green to show that we were available.  We wore dark somber colours for funerals and bright colours for weddings.  We wore kanga za moto (red and black) to show our displeasure or anger to husbands or light colours like white and yellow to show our happiness.  We wore kanga za mawingu (dark blue and black) when we were sad or green to show we were in love and each colour combinations had a meaning and our husbands, society and relatives understood the meaning and the symbols.

Of course, there are accompaniments to a color combination of the kanga like henna and wanja for festive occasions, gold and coral beads (marijani) when we wanted to look elegant.  We used to change our kanga daily.  We never wore the same pair in successive days.  We had to have a lot of kanga.

Our husbands bought us kanga and each festival was an occasion for a gift of kanga from a husband.  At the beginning of ramadhan, our husbands gave us kanga za uji (a gift for making porridge which is eaten during ramadhan;) kanga za iddi; kanga za mauled; kanga za mapenzi; just because a husband felt like it.  We also bought our own kanga.  A lot among us have been involved in small businesses like cooking and selling maandazi

“Together We Can Make it Happen”

Leila Sheikh

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Comments (2)

  • charles kayoka Reply


    August 7, 2015 at 6:47 pm
    • Leila Sheikh Reply

      Asante Charles,
      I have started research on beads.
      At one time, they were used as currency in Africa.

      August 24, 2015 at 11:08 pm

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