The History of Kanga


Please read on this page more about the kanga cloth and its history.

"The Kanga" and  "History of Kanga" sections are copyright 1984 Jeannette Hanby & David Bygott, from "Kangas - 101 Uses", Kibuyu Partners, kibuyu@yahoo.com. They have been reproduced here with the authors' permission. The rest of the page is by us (Hassan O. Ali and Kassim O. Ali) based on our own experiences and collections.


The Kanga

THE KANGA is a rectangle of pure cotton cloth with a border all around it, printed in bold designs and bright colours. It is as long as the span of your outstretched arms and wide enough to cover you from neck to knee, or from breast to toe. Kangas are usually bought and worn as a pair - called a "doti".

Kangas are the perfect gift. Husbands give kangas to wives. children to their mothers, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend. Men can sleep in kangas, and often wear them around the house; women wear them everywhere; babies are virtually born into them, and are usually carried in a soft sling of kanga cloth. Kangas are extremely popular throughout East Africa not only for clothing but for their multiple uses; no-one can ever have too many!

History of Kanga

Kangas originated on the coast of East Africa in the mid 19th century. As the story goes, some stylish ladies in Zanzibar got the idea of buying printed kerchiefs in lengths of six, from the bolt of cotton cloth from which kerchiefs were usually cut off and sold singly. They then cut the six into two lengths of three, and sewed these together along one side to make 3-by-2 sheet; or bought different kinds of kerchiefs and sewed them back together to form very individualistic designs.

The new design was called "leso" after the kerchief squares that had originally been brought to Africa by Portuguese traders. The leso quickly became popular than the other kind of patterned cloth available. Before long, enterprising coastal shopkeepers sent away for special designs, printed like the six-together leso pieces, but as a single unit of cloth.

These early designs probably had a border and a pattern of white spots on a dark background. The buyers (or more likely, their menfolk !) quickly came to call these cloths "KANGA" after the noisy, sociable guinea-fowl with its elegant spotty plumage.

Kanga designs have evolved over the years, from simple spots and borders to a huge variety of elaborate patterns of every conceivable motif and color. For a century, kangas were mostly designed and printed in India, the Far East and Europe. Even today, you will see kangas that were printed in China or Japan. But since the 1950's, more and more kangas have been designed and printed in Tanzania, Kenya, and other countries in Africa.

Early this century, Swahili sayings were added to kangas. Supposedly this fashion was started by a locally famous trader in Mombasa, Kaderdina Hajee Essak, also known as "Abdulla". His many kanga designs, formerly distinguished by the mark "K.H.E. - Mali ya Abdulla", often included a proverb. At first, the sayings, aphorisms or slogans were printed in Arabic script, later in Roman letters. Many of them have the added charm (or frustration!) of being obscure or ambiguous in their meaning. If you find a motto that you can't figure out, ask several different Swahili speakers. You will get an equal number of different explanations! Some typical kanga sayings are listed on the following page, for your edification and enjoyment.

New kanga designs keep appearing in great variety: - simple or intricate abstract patterns; homely themes such as chickens, crops, babies and fertility; pictures of famous attractions like mountains, monuments and wildlife; even pop stars! There are noticeable regional differences. For example, most of the kangas with mottos are made in Kenya, while those commemorating social or political events are more common in Tanzania.

The Kanga is still evolving. Like the T-shirt, but incomparably more elegant and useful, it is a valuable medium for personal political, social and religious expression. As an art form as well as a beautiful, convenient garment, the kanga has become an integral part of East African culture. As the saying goes, "The kanga struts in style..." Wear it with a smile!

A note on the History of Kanga

Please note that there are various versions of the origins of the kanga cloth. The version provided above by Hanby and Bygott is just one version.  Anthony John Troughear, an Australian journalist who lived and worked in Kenya, has another version. He asserts that  Charles New, in his book, "Life, wanderings and labours in Eastern Africa," London, 1873, p.58,  describes Mombasa women starting a new fashion by sewing leso (headscarfs) together, three in a row stitched to another two, to make a larger leso with six panels.

Troughear thinks that the claim that kangas originated in Zanzibar is not correct.  Zanzibar just happed to be a place where big Indian cloth merchants were. Those merchants only copied the Mombasa design when they saw it was becoming popular. The cloth merchants quickly made the six panels into one and it later evolved into the style which is common today.

The Anatomy of Kanga

Kanga is not just like any other rectangular piece of cloth, no matter how colourful it may be. It is an artifact of the Swahili culture and as such it should be designed with extreme care to appeal to its users. A poorly designed kanga, or one that fails to match the season doesn't deserve the name and the best it can be used for could be as a kitchen apron or a baby diaper. 

Although the kanga design might differ slightly, a typical kanga in East Africa consists of a wider border (Swahili: pindo), the central motif (Swahili: mji), and the writing (Swahili: ujumbe or jina). You can see some of these features by looking at kanga pictures on this website.

The pindo includes the outer margin, usually black in colour, and the inner band, which is double-bordered and may have a plain, textured, or patterned background. Its function is probably to provide support to the inner parts of kanga as well as to provide a clear distinction between the outer and the inner regions. In the most common use of kanga, the outer margin is usually hidden but its obscurity could be revealed in  some kanga dresses. The background of the inner band usually matches the colours to be found on the central motif.

The mji and the  jina are two features that usually give the kanga its local name and consequently its popularity. Mji occupies the most important area of kanga but save for its colours and the art, its popularity may be overshadowed by the context of the jina. The jina is usually printed in uppercase letters in colours that match the central motif and most likely on white background to improve its readability.

If the mji is made up of a distinguishable figure such as a fruit, an animal, a portrait, a flower, a pattern, or any other object, the kanga takes its local name from that particular figure. If however, the mji has no conspicuous figure the local name could be derived from the jina of the kanga. For example, a local name "bata" is for a kanga that has a picture of a "duck" in the motif; "mkeka" has a mat/carpet like pattern; "ndege" has a picture of a bird; "kikulacho" has a writing, "KIKULACHO KINGUONI MWAKO"; "mama nipe radhi" has a writing, "MAMA NIPE RADHI KUISHI NA WATU KAZI".

Kangas that come in dark blue colour are normally called "kanga za magharibi" (dusk kangas). There is a special design of kangas called "kisutu". It generally comes in red and black or blue and black colours. The red and black one is called "kisutu cha harusi" and is used in Zanzibar to wrap a bride on a wedding day. The blue and black version is more popular in Mombasa, Kenya.

Apart from its protective and decorative role, kanga is all about sending the message. It is the equivalent of the get well, greetings, or congratulations cards in the western culture but in this case the message goes a little bit beyond the normal meaning. For example, a fruit, a flower, a boat, or a bird could mean good upbringing or just the appreciation of beauty. On the other hand, a lion, a shark, or any such kind of dangerous animals could signal the sense of danger or a clear warning.

I need not say anything more about the jina. It has been explained in the section on Kanga History, but for whatever reason you are going to use kanga, bear in mind that it's the writing that tells everything!

Kanga and Politics

Just like the way campaign managers in western elections print t-shirts for sending their messages to the voters, kanga is an important tool for mobilizing people in East Africa. Whereas t-shirts apply equally well to men and women, kanga is something more appealing to women. By winning the support of women one is more than assured of election victory! Due to its simplicity in wearing, kanga if often used in political rallies as a form of identity for people supporting a particular political party.

Kanga has also been used to mobilize people in public health campaigns as well as creating awareness to particular development projects. When words are difficult to articulate with a mouth, inscribe them on kanga and wait for the results. Although cheap in price, the power of kanga in the Swahili culture is unimaginable.