«Surprise Me» 

The Social Practice of Wearing a Kanga

The moment you step foot on the island of Zanzibar, you’ll notice a colorful garment that is popular all over the Indian Ocean coastline: the kanga. It is worn with pride and can be described as a signature piece of clothing in East Africa, similar to the kimono in Japan. The beautifully patterned kangas of Zanzibari women have contained a distinct message “long before any designer even considered slogan T-shirts” or printing brand names in bold capital letters on their attire (Daniel Howden). The message is an often coded, but also playful or witty inscription in Swahili. It has become an integral part of Zanzibari cultural practices, especially for women wearing a kanga – often over their everyday dresses – who use it as a tool for indirect communication. It serves as a vehicle to deliver a distinct statement to their husbands, friends, or neighbors. Wearing a kanga is like wearing your heart on your sleeve.
The tradition of the kanga goes back to the nineteenth century where it was used for self-empowerment. Today, it’s an integral part of Swahili culture. It is an inexpensive garment and many women own more than one kanga. This rectangular piece of cotton fabric with dimensions approximately 1.5m by 1.1m is typically worn as a set, one piece to cover the body and the other one for the head. It consists of a wider border (a pindo), the central colorful pattern or motif (called mji), and the writing or inscription (called jina, which means “name” in Swahili). The jina quotes a Swahili saying, proverb, or aphorism and is clearly readable, as it is printed in black capital letters on a white background.

The kanga is crafted with extraordinary attention to an appealing message, as this is the main reason why people buy it. It reflects upon Swahili culture, with both traditional and contemporary content. It is also about perceptions of women and the way women understand themselves. If the message of the kanga isn’t suitable to what the woman wants to communicate, they won’t wear it and instead use it as a baby diaper or an apron in the kitchen. Women buy kangas for themselves, as an act of self-expression, or as a gift to send a message: of love, empowerment, appreciation, as well as a warning, acknowledgment, or to say thank you. It is the same reason why husbands buy kangas for their wives.

Because the text is always coupled with a specific pattern, even illiterate women take part in kanga communication. They will have the text read to them and memorize it in association with the pattern. Swahili women are said to know several hundred kanga jinas. When it is worn, the inscription on a kanga is either hidden – for instance in the folds of the fabric around the hips. Or the jina appears in mirror writing. But: to choose a certain kanga always inherits the meaning of the message being communicated, even if the wearer is hiding the inscription, as the pattern is always connected with the jina’s meaning. To quote Rose Marie Beck, a University of Leipzig professor of African languages, specializing in the sociology of language: “This argument leaves no possibility not to communicate.”

The translation of a proverb is always challenging, and the same goes for a jina. Literal and descriptive translations can hardly express their ambiguity. It’s helpful to ask for the meaning of the proverb rather than asking for a literal translation.

When a wife wants to communicate to her husband to never even think about having a second wife, he might find a kanga decorated at home that says: “Mke mwenza!! haa!! mezea!” “Mezea!” is Swahili slang for “Just swallow it!” and can be interpreted as “Forget it!” Another kanga hint that expresses how a woman wants to be treated is “Kantangaze” (“Surprise me”) or “Embe mbivu yaliwa kwa uvumilivu” which means “A ripe mango has to be eaten slowly,” which communicates a sexual meaning. But a kanga also may transport the feeling of disappointment: “Nilikudhani dhahabu kumbe adhabu,” “I thought of you as gold, but you are such a pain.” Something that was treasured as very important has proven not to be as imagined and is instead rather hurtful. These sayings can have a significant social impact: “Mke hapigwi kwa ngumi na mateke ila kwa kanga” means “A wife is never beaten by using a fist or kick but by kanga” which discourages abusive marital behavior, for instance. According to Beck, kangas are said to be especially effective in situations where we find a hierarchical relationship between the interactants.

The kanga demonstrates the importance of the cultural practice of clothing in society, as it can “play a role beyond mere fashion statements“ (Elinami Veraeli Swai): Wearing a kanga can lead the way to changing certain behaviors. With so much attention drawn to the jinas, it can also be understood as a literary genre. The kanga is “part of a system of knowledge“ in Swahili culture. The kanga’s sayings “are fashion and texts with powerful messages (…) They touch a special place, not only the mind but also emotion. (…} Whether this is true or not, when proclaimed in a kanga, it has the power to make people think.”

Text: Nella Beljan