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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."