google-site-verification: googlecb803562c78427f3.html The East African Kanga | Kingdom of Africa



Posted by Florian Cheval on


Fabrics with proverbs, called lesso, kanga (khanga), or lamba hoany, are used and worn throughout coastal East Africa and Madagascar. This light fabric make a lasting impression not only with their brightly colored designs, but also with the messages inscribed on them. In this way, it is very close to wax or kitenge fabric. Lovers of African textiles often confuse them.


As early as the 1850s or 1860s, women in the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania (perhaps around Lamu or Pate, but most likely in Mombasa or Zanzibar) began purchasing uncut linear sheets of six squares of handkerchiefs , called lesso in Portuguese, by cutting the lengths in half and sewing them together lengthwise to create larger rectangular cloths with two rows of three patterned squares each.

In 1875, enterprising traders from Zanzibar began importing modified lesso from England, Switzerland, India and the Netherlands. The Khanga ended up taking the name of khanga , perhaps because a popular early print included small spots similar to the color of guinea fowl, called khanga in Swahili. At the turn of the century, the khanga became particularly popular in Zanzibar, as many former slaves wanted to visually separate themselves from their past and redefine themselves as independent, fashionable individuals.

the story of the kanga

In the 1920s, a merchant from Mombasa, Kenya named Kaderdina Hajee Essak (nicknamed Abdullah), began adding Arabic writing to the lower center portion of these brightly colored rectangular fabrics. Sentences in Kiswahili or English in Roman script appeared in the 1960s. Inscriptions include proverbs, popular sayings, greetings, warnings, and political or religious slogans.

Kanga textile factory

The use of proverb fabrics has since spread along the coast and on the island of Madagascar , with accompanying text in appropriate languages. In the middle of the century, the textile factories Africa and Madagascar also began creating proverbial cloth for their own markets, although factories in India became the main producers of cloth for all regions.

Spelling errors frequently occur on proverb canvases, probably because many are made overseas for a foreign market in a foreign language. In Madagascar, it is said that lamba hoany must have spelling errors to be considered genuine lamba hoany , which suggests that this is part of their mystique


Fabric texture

Kanga fabrics are traditionally made of cotton , but they are also polyester or various blends. Three feet tall by five feet wide, they have a patterned border (about five to nine inches deep) surrounding a patterned interior that usually includes a central motif, often inside a large orb circular, with four smaller versions of the central motif at the four corners.

Kanga patterns

The designs, in bright, vibrant colors or more muted tones, typically use two to five colors on a white base and can incorporate virtually anything from genre scenes to a variety of nature objects or images of technology, or food.

Kanga Patterns


Lightweight and versatile, the Kanga fabrics are mainly worn by women, although men may also wear them, notably in Madagascar. Often worn in pairs, one may be wrapped around the upper torso and the other worn as a skirt.

They can be worn alone as dresses: A girl wraps the fabric around her body with the two ends overlapping in front and their top corners tied behind her neck. A woman who wraps it around her body with the top edge above her breasts and then rolls it either under or over itself, or with the two top corners tied in a knot.

They can be used as an outer cloak to protect against cold or heat, with the upper edge raised above the head to form a hood if necessary. Women often wrap the loincloth around their waist to protect them from their other clothing when working. Khanga fabrics can be used to cradle a baby against their back, the ends being either over both shoulders, under the arms, or one over and one under one arm, the ends being twisted, knotted or held in front.

Kanga from Tanzania

If twisted lengthwise and rolled into a flat spiral or donut shape, as the saying goes, the fabric lesso act as cushions when carrying a heavy or bulky load on the head. They are often used to wrap objects or packages, or to cover the contents in a basket. They are also increasingly used as wall hangings, bedspreads, curtains or seat covers. Finally, in some regions, kangas are essential accessories for attending funerals or weddings.


A person can communicate through a Zanzibarite cloth depending on how, where or when it is worn, displayed or given. A person may wear an item of clothing so that the recipient of the message can see it, walking past their home or business, visiting a neighbor, or wearing it in their home. Messages may warn a gossipy neighbor, a rival co-wife, or may indicate a person's friendship or love.

kanga proverb

For example, a wife may show affection by wearing the item of clothing that her husband has just removed, or she may place her item of clothing on her husband's pillow to indicate that she would like his attentions. Kanga clothing can also be given as a gift by mother, spouse, parent, grandparent, lover, rival or friend. Lovers can also send scented kangas to emphasize their romantic intentions.


Utabaki na chokochoko utaambulia ukoko : “By continuing to create discord, you will only end up with leftovers.” Tanzania (Hassan) .

Kunisalimia tu haitoshi: “It’s not enough to greet me.” Kenya (Troughear) .

Fanahy tsara no maha olona: “Good character makes a person.” Madagascar (Green, personal translation) .

kanga fabric meaning

The meaning of messages, the identity of the recipient of a message, and the intention of the sender can be ambiguous. However, a person may wear a proverbial item of clothing without intending to send a message, or may wear it with a specific person or people in mind. Additionally, symbolic proverbial sayings can have multiple interpretations or meanings.

The responsibility for recognizing a communicative exchange therefore falls on the viewer, who must decide whether a message is intentional and, if so, whether it applies to them. A woman can therefore send a message to a rival or friend without risking the social stigma of inciting argument or confrontation, since she can always deny that a message was intentional.

The East African Kanga

The woman who wears or gives an item of clothing, who has exclusive knowledge of its intention, is therefore in a position of power, and the recipient, who has the disadvantage of not knowing whether a message is intended, is disarmed. Kanga clothing are therefore a mode of communication and power that is both beautiful and complex.

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