The kanga is a rectangular piece of printed fabric, about 1.5 m x 1 m, traditionally with a border along all four sides ('pindo' in Swahili), and a central part ('mji' in Swahili) which differs in design from the borders. One of the longer edges of the 'mji' features a 'box' which typically contains a message in Swahili. The text is called 'jina' or 'ujumbe' ('name' and 'message' in Swahili). Messages often come in the form of riddles or proverbs, and some can be hard to translate from Swahili as the meaning may have many layers.
The patterns are usually printed in a bold and colourful design on textile. Traditionally on pure cotton, though polyester in recent years have become popular. Kanga quality thus differs in terms of thickness of fabrics and texture.
Kangas are usually sold 'kanga ya doti', a a pair of kanga, which is also reflected in the way women usually wear and utilise the kanga. - one piece of kanga may for instance be worn wrapped as a sarong while the other may be used to carry a baby or to cover the head
Logo Design for The Kanga Book by Rob Rooker
There are several versions of the history of the origin of the kanga. The kanga is unique to the Swahili Coast, and this is one of the key reasons for our interest in the kanga. As with the popular, printed fabric worn by Africans - called ‘kitenge’ in East Africa - the kanga has an interesting history of relationships with expression of identity and individuality. For the kitenge, the West Africans embraced the Dutch machine-printed fabric, because every piece was individual due to the printing technique, while it was deemed imperfect by the Indonese. Read more about the history of printed fabric in Africa here.
For the kanga, the history differs, but its origin is also related to expression of individuality. The story goes that the printed headscarf pieces of fabric, which were brought to East Africa by Portuguese traders during the middle of the 19th century, were customised by women in Zanzibar who turned these head scarves into new, individual designs by sewing six pieces together as one. See Edouard Foà's photos here.
In Mombassa in Kenya these head scarves were called ‘leso’., The Kanga Book focuses on the Zanzibar origin of kanga, where a popular perception is that the name of this type of customised design derived from the guinea fowl, which is called ‘kanga’ in Swahili. The guinea fowl is black with white dots and is known for making loud noise. One version goes that the first kanga designs had white spots on a dark background. Thus, the fabric was popularly named ‘kanga’.
The kanga, as we know it today, came into production when creative traders on the Swahili coast identified the interests from buyers. Instead of sewing pieces together, kangas were printed and sold as a single unit of fabric. Though women do no longer piece together their own unique kangas, the role of the kanga in today's everyday Tanzania do still play together with expression of personality and relationship with community. This is in particular a turning point for our interest in the kanga.