Libmonster ID: U.S.-1217

N. GROMOVA, Doctor of Philology

E. STROGANOVA, Candidate of Historical Sciences

As soon as you find yourself in Tanzania or Kenya, you will definitely pay attention to local women: in bright colorful clothes, noisy, cheerful, with children on their shoulders and baskets on their heads - they resemble exotic birds. In the Swahili language spoken in these countries, the word kanga means "variegated guinea fowl". It is also the name of traditional women's clothing.

The history of traditional women's clothing in East African countries, especially in the Swahili world, does not go back thousands of years, as in other Eastern civilizations. It is believed that the fashion for wearing such clothes appeared in Zanzibar in the 1880s. 1 According to another version, the appearance of kanga in East Africa is due to the Portuguese, who brought small leso headscarves with them. Six such handkerchiefs sewn together formed the kanga. Until now, in Kenya, kanga can be called leso. Be that as it may, this type of women's clothing, ubiquitous in Tanzania and Kenya, has become an integral part of Swahili culture.

Kanga is a piece of cloth, approximately 110 * 150 cm, or rather, two pieces, since they are sold and are always worn in pairs. Kanga is decorated with various patterns, most often with plant or flower ornaments. Its middle part is called in Swahili mji - "background, field", which is framed on four sides by pindo - "border" - an ornament, a strip of a different color, and such a piece of fabric becomes like a scarf. Along the bottom edge of the kanga on a white background is placed a phrase in Swahili that defines the type of kanga (wedding, funeral, thanksgiving, etc.). This is jina-the" name " of kanga, that is, an inscription that has a certain meaning, a kind of message or message from a woman who is dressed in kanga to someone around her.

Such clothes are worn as follows. One piece of fabric is wrapped around the waist and it looks like a long straight skirt, while the other (usually exactly the same) covers the head and shoulders. You can tie a kanga over the chest or on the shoulders, put a dress, skirt (less often trousers) and a blouse under it. Muslim women wear kanga over a black burqa. At the same time, a woman can be content with a small number of options for "lower" clothes, while in her home wardrobe there can be a lot of kang themselves, up to 50 pieces. Men can also wear kangas, but only at home, instead of a bathrobe or pajamas.

Among visiting Europeans and tourists, such East African fabrics are in great demand. Of course, not because they are supposed to be worn exactly as Tanzanian or Kenyan women do. Europeans are attracted not even by the fact that it turns out an inexpensive "exotic" gift from an African trip-from 2 to 3.5 thousand shillings for two pieces of kanga (about $3-4), but by their bright color scheme, contrasting color combination and undoubted originality. The local kangas are so attractive that they can be seen in various museums in Europe, even in those that traditionally do not deal closely with East Africa, for example, in the Museum on the Quai Branly in Paris. It is especially interesting that this is a" talking " fabric, the inscriptions on it are well understood by those who know the Swahili language.


This article is based on inscriptions collected in 2005 and 2007 in Tanzania (Dar es Salaam, Tanga, Bagamoyo, Mwanza, Zanzibar, Pemba, Kilwa) and Kenya (Nairobi, Mombasa, Lamu). In total, about 500 inscriptions on kangas were analyzed, collected by random sampling. Our informants and respondents were kang sellers, as well as women who wear them. Some of the information was obtained from researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam and the National Swahili Council of Tanzania. In a number of shops and shops that sell

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kangi, the owners have prepared lists of the most frequently used inscriptions at our request.

Women who sell fabrics told us in detail how to choose a kanga depending on its purpose: whether it will be used as wedding clothes or whether it will be used for funerals, whether it is planned to give it as a gift or wear it as everyday clothing at home.

Since kanga has a certain inscription, women in East Africa must take into account what is written on it, focusing not only on the combination of colors or patterns.

One of our informants, Anna, who received higher education abroad, told us about the mistake she made. Soon after her wedding, she decided to make a gift to her husband's sister and was very surprised when the offended relative returned kanga, and besides, the husband expressed his displeasure to the young wife. It turned out that when choosing the fabric, Anna liked the color scheme of kanga, and she absolutely did not pay attention to what was written on it. And the caption read: Sina jema kwenu hata nikafanya nini (I'm not good for you, no matter what I do).

As in the rest of the world, African women want to be beautiful and attractive. But after all, the African woman lives in a society where traditionally the dominant role belongs to men, and for a long time, until independence, most women were illiterate. Kanga also performed and continues to perform a communicative function: even if a woman could not or does not know how to read, she remembers the pattern on the fabric, its color and the text of the inscription, read, for example, by a literate friend.


Nowadays, women know several hundred different" names " of kang. According to ethical canons, a Swahili woman cannot express her feelings and feelings out loud, "to her eyes", and kanga does it for her. These inscriptions- "names" are used to express her attitude to the members of the environment in which she lives (relatives, friends, husband, lover, rival, etc.). That is why" female " inscriptions on kangas are the majority:

Uzuri wa mke ni tabia si sura (A wife's beauty is her character, not her face);

Wasemao na waseme siwajali mambo yao (They say, well, let them say, I don't pay attention to their affairs).

These inscriptions can be very emotional, conveying the "cry of the soul":

Wee! Utaumiza rohoyangu (You! You're hurting my soul);

Mke mwenza!! haa!! mezea! (Burned, yeah, and don't dream about it!).

For any woman, her relationship with her lover, spouse is very important, her feelings are reflected in inscriptions in which a woman conveys her joy, pain from infidelity, warns a friend about the adventures of her husband, suffers from jealousy, threatens a rival, etc. Kanga thus becomes a kind of "field for clarifying relations":

Awe mbaya au mzuri ni wangu (Whether it's good or bad, it's mine);

Nilikudhani dhahabu kumbe adhabu (I thought you were gold, but it looks like you're punishment);

Japo kidogo chatosha kwa wapendanao (Loving each other is enough and small = "With a nice paradise and in a hut").

In a Muslim family with several wives, the inscription on the kanga serves as a kind of aphrodisiac, attracting the attention of the spouse and encouraging him to give preference to one or another wife.:

Karibu wangu muhibu (Welcome, my beloved);

Moyo wa kupenda hauna subira (The loving heart is impatient).

In Africa, a wedding is one of the most significant events in life, and therefore its preparation is taken very seriously, and it is carried out in compliance with all the necessary rituals, regulations, and rules. So, in Zanzibar, a special kanga kisutu is supposed for a wedding with a small pattern and a predominance of black and red colors on a white background.-

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Therefore, a significant part of the inscriptions on the kangas is devoted to the wedding theme.:

Mola ibariki hii ndoa iwe yenye kheri na baraka (God bless this marriage to be a happy one);

Harusi nifuraha na sote tufurahie (Wedding is a joy, let's all enjoy it together).

The next big group of inscriptions is about God. The inscriptions on the kangas contain quotations from sacred books, phrases from sermons that women of various faiths listen to in temples.:

Kilajambojema hutoka kwa mungu (All good things come from the Lord);

Mche mungu upate baraka (Pray to God to be blessed).

A significant proportion are statements about parents. Traditionally, society in Africa has great respect for parents and ancestors. Respect for parents, filial and filial obedience is one of the most important moral values:

Japo maskini mzazi namthamini (Although I am poor, I appreciate my parents);

Penzi la mama tamu, haliishi hamu (Mother's love is sweet, the desire for this love is unquenchable).


There are quite a lot of inscriptions in the form of parting words, wishes, and motivations for any action. In some cases, you can even feel a certain intonation and the author's attitude to the addressee. Sometimes inscriptions are simply a statement of fact, an event, or a reaction to problems that arise in the family, between relatives, or in the immediate environment:

Naishi niwezavyo siishi mtakavyo (I live as I can, not as you want);

Sithamini pochi yako ball utu wako (I do not value your wallet, but your decency).

Such expressions of feelings can be presented in the form of paremias, since it is proverbs and sayings that are a kind of" concentration " of folk wisdom. It is not by chance that kangas often contain proverbs widely known in the Swahili world, 3 which are also well understood by the Russian person, since they reflect fundamental values and moral and ethical ideas about the world around them:

Akiba haiozi (Stock does not rot = "Your own burden does not pull");

Akipenda chongo huita kengeza (If you love a crooked one in one eye, call him oblique = "Love evil, you will love a goat");

Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba (Little by little filled with meru = "With the world on a thread, naked shirt");

Ukipenda boga upende na ua lake (If you love pumpkin, love its flowers = "Love to ride, love to carry sleds").

Traditionally, all inscriptions are made in Swahili. According to women who sell fabrics (and they, like no one else, are better versed in the product, and in consumer preferences, and in the fashion of kangas, and their expert opinion can be fully trusted), now you can order any inscription. Inscriptions on kangas can be made up and are made up indefinitely, there are no restrictions in this regard (the only condition is that an order for at least 100 pieces is accepted). Kangas are produced both in local factories and exported from India.

Currently, kanga is not only the mouthpiece of women, but also receives a "second birth" as a cultural and social phenomenon. Often, the inscriptions on kangas are a reaction to the changes taking place in society, reflecting important events of modern reality. So, you can find inscriptions about Kilimanjaro and nature reserves - one of the attractions of East Africa, so attractive to tourists; about Tanzania, in which the Tanzanian nation is being built; about the first president of this country, who implemented this program; about the role of the ruling party; about the unity of all Africa and much, much more. In particular, kanga can be ordered as a uniform or a gift souvenir when celebrating the anniversary dates of an organization or enterprise.

Poems are composed about Kanga, her role and place not only in the female environment. Among the studied inscriptions, we found one phrase about kanga itself, emphasizing its beauty and significance:

Kanga nenda na urembo, shani urembo ni shani (Kanga, go with beauty, miracle, beauty is an amazing miracle = "Beauty is a terrible power").

This once again shows that kanga is an important element of the culture of modern Swahili society. Perhaps it was kanga that became the prototype of the inscriptions on T-shirts, so popular around the world, since African culture has always aroused interest in Europe, having a noticeable influence on European fine arts, music and fashion.

Beck Rose-Marie. 1 Ambiguous signs: the role of the "kanga" as a medium of communication // Afrikanistische Arbeitsfpapiere, 2001, N 68, p. 157.

Mahfoudha Alley Hamid. 2 Kanga. More than what meets the eye. A medium of communication. Dar es Salaam, p. 5 - 6.

Wamitila K. W. 3 Kamusi ya methali (Dictionary of Proverbs). Nairobi, 2001.


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N. GROMOVA, E. STROGANOVA, KANGA IN SWAHILI CULTURE // New-York: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 07.07.2023. URL: (date of access: 13.07.2024).

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