I am kanga, a gentle one that’s me
I’m great and full of grace;
I’m the first when one is born
And definitely the last when death when one faces.

From Kanga by Mahfouda Alley Hamid

This printed cotton kanga’s inscription is echoed by another from the early 21st century, which reads Karibu Mgeni in Kiswahili, meaning ‘welcome stranger’ (or foreigner), an apt East African welcome from Eldoret, Kenya, for all those, who like foreigners, don’t know much about east and south African textiles. Karibu Mgeni is also the welcome to a dedicated British Museum touring exhibition.

Kanga, capulana, shweshwe and other patterned textiles from these two areas of Africa are embedded with social, historical, political and religious subject matter and significance. Such fabrics have the ability to mirror ongoing societal and political changes and are sometimes targeted on the occasions at which they are worn, such as a ground-breaking conference held by FRELIMO, now Mozambique’s ruling party.

Go deeper – these fabrics record the beliefs, status, aspirations, as well as the fashions, emotional and sexual concerns of the mainly women who wear them, suggesting thoughts and feelings, which otherwise can’t be expressed – the unspoken language of textiles. All these style dreams are communicated through inscriptions, designs, weaving patterns and also colours of the textiles involved.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.29.59 PM

World Cup cloth’, printed cloth, South Africa, early 21st century

Let’s delve into the social, lifestyle and sometimes very personal issues expressed by these textiles. As in other parts of Africa, they can signify unity, women in particular and men dressing in the same design to show shared commitment, bonding and friendship, whether at a wedding, festival, funeral, or other special event. A red and black Tanzanian marriage kanga from Bagamoyo is typical of those worn for generations, but today often carrying revealing or double-edged inscriptions. This one pulls no punches: ‘You’re showing yourself up unnecessarily – I’m the chosen one.’ Another cloth from Mozambique declares ‘Najilebi’, which has two possible meanings in Swahili: ‘I can’t be deceived’ or ‘I’m showing off’. Another Kenyan kanga is inscribed: ‘I have no secrets but I have an answer’. But the same words in Swahili Si Nasir and Ni Najib can also mean ‘No to Nasir’ and ‘Yes to Najib’.

The inscription on a kanga depicting a mango tree reads: ‘The mangoes are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself. A Kenyan kanga with a border design of zingifuri (prickly fruit) reads: ‘I may be quiet but there’s a lot in my heart’. The zingifuri fruit is prickly, but its soft flesh inside is used for colouring hair and food. As one might expect, another Tanzanian kanga proclaims: ‘A wedding is a joyous occasion to be enjoyed by all’. However, it’s a savvy bit of targeting, since its design of six pairs of hands tattooed with henna, a custom common to both Muslim and Hindu brides, is calculated to appeal to the large Asian population in east Africa.

Particular textiles from this vast area of Africa play a major role in rite of passage ceremonies, declaring new status and identity. In South Africa and Lesotho, Sotho men and women mark important events such as initiation by wearing brightly coloured blankets with elaborate patterns. The Seana Marena, ‘King’s blanket’, has a Poona or maize design, signifying fertility and prosperity. It’s worn by young men to show that they have been initiated and have reached manhood. After the ceremony, they wear different blankets called lekhokolo and wide-brimmed hats.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.29.45 PM

‘Mango tree kanga’, printed cotton, Tanzania, early 2000’s

The history of Sotho blankets dates back to the 1860’s when an industrially made version was presented to King Moshoeshoe 1 – his ‘King’s blanket’. This visionary king defied British, Boer and Zulu forces to found the kingdom of Lesotho. He was also instrumental in having factory-made textiles assimilated into Sotho life, and Seana Marena blankets have continued to be woven in factories. Another popular fabric to this day that has become a distinctly south African textile is shweshwe, made of dischargeprinted cotton originally from Germany and Switzerland. Although a standard range of patterns has remained in print, innovations regularly pop up, some inspired by traditional mural motifs, others by national and international heroes like Nelson Mandela.


Full article published in Omenka magazine volume 2 issue 2.

Originally trained as a photographer, Juliet Highet lived in East & West Africa as well as India, subsequently also travelling to 52 countries. In Nigeria she began writing professionally and on her return to UK began editing books and magazines. Highet is widely published on travel, the arts, perfumery and much more. She is the author of Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World, and a specialist in contemporary Arab culture and its heritage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *