The textile tradition of the Kanga has a fascinating social function in Swahili speaking countries in East Africa, that would be a great link to getting student to think about the way that clothing and textiles in general can communicate social messages.
What is a Kanga?
Kangas are rectangular cloths measuring 1×1.5 meters, and come in many designs and colors. Kangas usually have a border on all 4 sides (called a “pindo”) and a central design in the middle (called an “mji”). Above the bottom border, Kangas contain a textual element, (or jina) usually in the form of a saying or proverb written in Swahili.
The origins of how the tradition of the Kanga developed is debated, but most theories speculate that the Kanga originated on the island of Zanzibar, where traders from Europe, India, and other parts of Asia were importing fabric to be sold. For more details on the evolution and history of the Kanga click here.
Today the Kanga is popular in Swahili speaking countries, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, the Congo etc. Typically sold in pairs, women (and sometime men) use Kangas for multiple functions, both practical: from clothing as skirts, shawls, head wraps, baby carriers, etc, to more social in ceremonies and political events, and as gifts.
Communication of Kangas:
The written inscriptions on Kangas give them a social function that goes far beyond merely being aesthetic or decorative. The writing itself, usually in Swahili though often in Arabic, range from messages that are religious or personal to more pointed social and political messages.
Kangas often carry proverbs or general reflections on life, that are meant for view by the general public, or are often meant for specific individuals and given as gifts. (For example a Kanga reading: “Uchungu wa mwana anaujua mzazi” translates as “A parent understands the pain of her children” might be given as a gift from child to mother.
Kangas with specific messages may be worn with more aggressive intents, and directed towards others with specific social warnings. (For example, a Kanga reading: “Nitazidi kumpenda mpate kusema sana” translates as “Keep on talking. The more you gossip, the more I will love him” might be a message directed from one woman to another.)
Kanga writing can also carry a more specific message raising awareness about a social or political event. For example special Kangas are often created for political events or elections as a way to bolster morale and support.
The Erie Art Museum created an exhibition about East African Kongas. This link leads to an excellent site where you can download images of Kangas and translations of their inscriptions.
For a more Kangas and their translated inscriptions click here.
Investigation of the function of Kangas in East African society would be an interesting way for students to think about how clothing and textiles communicate messages in American Society.
Other Interesting Links:
Article in the BCC about the changing role of the Kanga in East African Society. Click here