Kangalicious: Let your dress do the talking

There are two rules to wearing a kanga: it must be colourful, and it must be inscribed with a proverb. Daniel Howden reports on a garment sweeping the globe

What you wear can say a lot about you. If you happen to be wrapped in a kanga, then your clothing can even speak for itself. The complex, beguiling and proudly loud patterns of East Africa's favourite cotton rectangle are bordered with proverbial wisdom which can pass on messages as subtle as, Dunia dara, the Earth is round, or as blunt as, "I won't be sleeping with you this evening".

There are only two essentials that go into making a piece of woven cloth into a kanga: one is a bold central design, and the second is a solid border on which one of the thousands of Swahili proverbs is written. Beyond these two rules there is creative chaos.

The versatility of the kanga has been the mainstay of Swahili Fashion Week as the region's designers have sought to reinvent and remind an international audience that the Indian Ocean coast has its own unique signature garment.

"Indians have their sari and the Japanese have the kimono," says Mustafa Hassanali, a designer and organiser of the past week's events in Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam. "We have the kanga."

Hassanali is not alone in his enthusiasm for the unique cloth, with a growing number of African designers being seduced by its charms. But he is certainly leading the way. A former doctor with a penchant for camp glamour, Hassanali launched the Swahili week last year with a "small rehearsal", but this year drew in designers from South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique. Naomi Campbell even stepped in to cohost a charity show on Thursday. Hassanali sees no reason why with "baby steps" it cannot one day be as big as Paris Fashion Week.

"Change has to come from somewhere," he says. "There's a huge diaspora market out there which is dying for something from back home, from East Africa. This is the way the kanga could be used."

In the humid port cities of Mombasa and Dar and the tropical islands of Zanzibar and Lamu, the kanga's uses are almost endless. The fabric binds babies to their mothers' backs in slings, double kangas are worn as full-length dresses and singles as headscarves. They make excellent tablecloths, or can be crushed with beads and worn as accessories; sometimes they are made into bags, woven into shoes or used as car-seat covers. There are wedding kangas and funeral ones and, for many children born here, the kanga is the first thing they see after their mother. Hassanali still has "vivid memories" of the one he slept on as a child.

For the thousands of tourists lazing on East Africa's Indian Ocean beaches, the kanga is usually something to sunbathe on or a holiday sarong. For many, the cotton wrap is a tentative, if brief, venture into a more exotic palate of colours or an awkward attempt to mimic the bolder African style of dressing.

In fact, the cloth has its origins in the women of the Swahili coast watching and adapting the curious dress of European explorers. By the mid-19th century, the cotton squares worn as kerchiefs or lecos by the Portuguese who dominated this coastline then were being bought by enterprising women in batches of six from the Indian traders in Zanzibar and Mombasa, then stitched together in two lengths of three and worn as dresses.

The individualistic results quickly became the envy of the coast. The kanga name came from the Ki-Swahili term for the noisy, colourful guinea fowl with its spotted plumage. The traders started sending off for rolls of printed cloth in the new size, and a new fashion was born.

Long before anyone had thought of producing T-shirts with slogans, East African women were wearing kangas with often mischievous or coded messages. The division of the cloth into the miji or central motif, the pindo, border, and the all important jina accompanying motto added another layer to the kangas' cultural resonance.

Kaderdina Hajee "Abdulla" Essak, a Mombasa trader, is often credited with printing the first mottos on the cotton rectangles – thought to have been sayings from the Koran in Arabic – and his kangas became famous for including proverbs. Anyone wearing a kanga with the proverb Fimbo La Mnyonge Halina Nguvu" (Might is Right) may know something about the darker side of the garment's journey from the coast into the interior.

Ki-Swahili was born about a millennium ago out of the meeting of Arabic traders and Bantu speakers on Africa's immense Indian Ocean coastline. Ki is a prefix, meaning language, while sawahil means "coastal" in Arabic. Academics cannot settle exactly on its date of birth but most agree that it was thriving by the 10th century. The people themselves, the Wa-Swahili, carried their language and fashion into central Africa through their feared ivory and slave caravans.

Travelling with the caravans of legendary slavers such as Tippu Tip went the Zanzibari concubines or wives, whose elite status was marked by their metal jewellery, hair dyes and elaborately printed cloth dress, or kangas. During the period of dictatorship on Zanzibar, the jina, or writing, was even banned. But now the wrap has become ubiquitous. It even survived the well-meaning but often disastrous invasion of second-hand Western clothes that have destroyed African textile industries from Lesotho to Lake Victoria.

What was once a status symbol has with the passage of time retreated from the wardrobes of the wealthy and the trendsetters in East Africa. "It had got to the point where no one wanted a kanga for a wedding gown," Hassanali says. Then he had the idea of using the printed cloths in a contemporary collection with the modest title "Kangalicious". He adds: "Since then everyone wants kangas; they come to me and say, 'I didn't know you could make uber-couture out of kangas'. Someone has to make a trend, that's why we're designers."

The former medical man is not alone. Kanga Kabisa, a manufacturer on Zanzibar, is among a growing number of small producers using the cloth for everything from men's shirts to children's clothes. South African fashion house Lalesso has been using the guinea-fowl prints for trendily cut skirts, tops and dresses, although they have upset some on the Eastern coast by dropping the traditional proverbs from the borders.

For many people, the erstwhile sailors' handkerchiefs are as much about communication as clothing, and the symbolism of their prints is a language that can be read by initiates. A fruit, flower, boat or bird suggests the wearer has an appreciation of beauty; a lion or shark design can be a warning. A red kanga laid across the marital bed is a subtle sounding of the refrain, "Not tonight".

They also have their political uses; an artful kanga is said to improve a candidate's chances with women voters. The cotton wraps hawked on the streets of Kenya feature one familiar political face who has not even campaigned here yet. When Barack Obama, smiling from the thousands of red, white and blue kangas still selling strongly, does make a presidential visit to Kenya, there would be worse ways of displaying his enthusiasm than trying on a fashionable example of one of Africa's sartorial staples.

Dress code: Swahili sayings on the kangas

Utakodolea macho hutokijua nilichonacho

"You know what I've got, so what are you staring at?"

Naogopa simba na meno yake siogopi mtu kwamaneno yake

"I'm afraid of a lion with its strong teeth but not a man with his words."

Nitazidi kumpenda mpate kusema sana

"Keep on talking. The more you gossip, the more I will love him."

Jibu ninalo nasubiri uropoke

"I know the truth, I am just waiting for you to start blabbing."

Embe mbivu yaliwa kwa uvumilivu

"A ripe mango has to be eaten slowly."

Nilikudhani dhahabu kumbe adhabu

"I thought of you as gold but you are such a pain."

Utamaliza limau shaba haiwi dhahabu

"You will run short of lemon juice, but never will copper turn into gold."

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?