Anyone from Africa, or who has travelled in Africa, will have come into contact with the exquisite fabrics that have emerged from this continent. East to West, North to South, the colours and patterns on the cloth reflect the warmth of the sun and the richness of the earth.
In Zambia these cloths are called Chitenge and I feel privileged enough to have some (courtesy of Mwanabibi Sikamo who is the Founder of Bibusa – which produces quality handmade goods from Africa. She also writes the blog Uprooting the Pumpkin.)
Below is a picture of one of my chitenge which currently brightens up my filing cabinet!
In Kenya, where I was born, the cloths which are worn by women in a variety of ways are called Kanga. Kanga in Swahili means Guinea Fowl and the story goes that in Zanzibar, where these cloths first emerged, they were named for the guinea fowl because of their bright speckled patterns.
For me the most fascinating thing about the kangas is that each one bears a message; sometimes a Swahili proverb, sometimes a political slogan, sometimes a very personal message from the giver to the receiver. These messages are known as Jina and they are many and varied. Short and to the point, they carry a whole lot of meaning. They are given by mothers to daughters, friends to one another, children to mothers, husbands to wives etc. And the meaning matters. For me it is such a wonderful tradition, a beautiful gift with a message on it that you have to puzzle out.
If you want to read more, this site has a very good list of just a few of the jina found on kangas.
While I was reading up about them I came across an interesting tale (recounted by Wener Graebner) which demonstrates so clearly how these jina can be used. A young Tanzanian girl recounted how she became engaged to a German man and that in her area this caused much talk. She bought herself two kangas: on the one was the message – Wasemao na waseme – Let them talk who want to talk; on the other was written, Moyo ndiye muamuzi – Only the heart decides. She reported that the talk soon stopped once she appeared wearing these.
Here is a photo of some of my own kanga. They would look better under the African sun!