Kanga (sometimes known as khanga or leso) is a colorful popular garment worn by women and occasionally by men throughout Eastern Africa. It is a piece of printed cotton fabric, often with a border along all four sides (called pindo in Swahili), a central part (mji) which differs in design from the borders and the writing (jina or ujumbe). The mji and jina are two features that usually give the kanga its local name, popularity and meaning. Kangas are usually rectangular in shape, each with their own ‘name’ or slogan written in the Kiswahili language in the same position in every design printed in a variety of designs and colors. Kangas are artifacts of the Swahili culture and as such are designed with a lot of care to appeal to its users. Kangas are sold in matching pairs- called “doti” and are mainly worn by women as a shawl or headdress. Men are allowed only to use kangas inside the house.

Early designs of kangas had a border and a pattern of black and white spots on a dark background. The buyers thus began calling these early designs “KANGA” after the noisy, sociable guinea-fowl that has elegant black and white dotted colors. It is important to note that kanga designs have evolved over the years, from simple dotted black and white shapes to more elaborate patterns with varying motif and color made from a variety of fabrics.

Kangas are extremely popular throughout East Africa not only as a form of clothing but for their multiple uses; no-one can ever have too many! There is a common Swahili proverb that says "a woman can't be happy until she has got a thousand kangas." The first Kangas would have been without any writing, but it is claimed that writings may have been added to the design around 1910. This fashion, it is claimed, was began by a famous trader in Mombasa, Kenya called Kaderdina Harjee Essak. Earlier forms of writings, sayings, aphorisms, and slogans and proverbs that were used on kangas were mainly in Arabic script and later there was the use of Roman script. It is vital to note that new designs of kangas keep appearing each year and they take on various forms ranging from simple to more abstract and intricate forms or pictures depicting people’s daily activities in East Africa. There are distinct and noticeable regional differences. For instance, most kangas in Kenya have mottos on them while those made in Tanzania commemorate social, political events and iconic figures.

In the past kangas were confined to coastal communities of Tanzania and Kenya (e.g. Zanzibar, Pemba, Mombasa, Lamu etc). Nowadays they are worn throughout East Africa and some other parts of Africa like Madagascar, Zambia, Malawi, Comoros Islands, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi among others. Today, kangas are worn by women of all faiths and play a key role in all major life ceremonies like – birth, puberty, marriage and death. Sometimes they are also used for everyday functions. Kangas originated from the East African coast in the mid 19th century. It is not clear whether the origin was in Mombasa or Zanzibar. Historically, hand-stamped varieties of kangas have been locally produced in Eastern Africa for several decades, though until the late 1960s machine-printed versions were mainly produced overseas, first in Europe, then later in India and Far East (China and Japan). At present, kangas are produced in textile industries in Tanzania and Kenya and other African countries as well as imported from overseas.

Kanga as a Means of Communication

Apart from its protective and decorative role, kangas are all about communicating the message. The writing that are printed on the kanga is usually of central significance and it is the one that makes people buy the kanga. Messages are often in the form of riddles, saying, aphorisms, metaphors, a poetic phrase or proverbs. It is important to note that most writings use proverbs than other phrases. Over the years kangas, because of their dominance of fashion industry in East Africa, have become a valuable medium of expressing personal, political, social and religious ideas and aspirations in Eastern Africa.

Kangas are often traded or purchased for friends and family for the sheer beauty of the cloth, and to communicate messages implied by the phrase on the cloth. In this way, the kangas are used as a form of potent, indirect and direct communication. Because of the significance of the messages written on them and their communication power, Swahili speaking people do not just buy kangas because of their color or beauty but are mostly lured by its message. This message can be a message of love, comfort, educational, or thank you. There are some messages that indicate that the person wearing the kanga is not in good terms with another person. Kangas that have abusive messages are never given out as presents. Apart form being used as shawls, headscarfs, veils or beddings, kangas have many other uses. Kangas can be used as curtains/blinders, bed covers or table cloths, floor mats, prayer mats and baby coats as well as gifts to significant others. The latter usually have messages of love showing how much the person giving the kanga values the person receiving it. Women in rural areas use kangas as aprons when doing farm work and when fetching water. Further, Muslim women use kangas as veils during prayer sessions.

Just like in western campaign elections where print t-shirts are used for sending their messages to voters, kangas are an important tool for mobilizing people in East Africa during elections seasons and other political engagements. Whereas t-shirts apply equally well to men and women, kangas are more appealing to women. Kangas are often used in political rallies as a form of identity for people supporting a particular party or candidate. In addition, they are also used to mobilize people during public health campaigns as well as creating awareness on various developmental programs. In conclusion, kangas as an art form as well as beautiful, convenient garments, have become an integral and significant part of East African culture.