The wonderful world of Kanga

The history of Kanga is implicitly bound up in the history of slavery. Slave women were forbidden to wear colourful, printed or decorated cloth, forced to wear plain, uncomfortable, very durable, but very hot white canvas. The kangas on sale today in Tanga and Zanzibar reflect along historical deep embrace of life, and freedom.

Photograph C. Samantha Reinders, from the blog ‘Woven Voices

The international trading of Slaves began to diminish long after it was formally made illegal in (1833 in GB, 1865 in the US).  Locally made and imported colourful fabrics, called Kanga, were a deliberate rejection of the dull, heavy canvas cloth ‘Amerikani’ that colonial subjects were forced to wear and a strident statement of freedom and autonomy. Like the Capulana fabric in Mozambique, women’s rebellion and resistance to colonial rule in Tanzania took the form of wearing bright colours. the early kanga were hand printed. This is one of the earliest photos of women, the servants of the Zanzibar Princess Salma, wearing hand decorated kanga:

Floral motifs on the patterned clothing of free Swahili women. Here the servants of Princess Salma of Zanzibar proudly model their clothing. As concubines of the Sultans and mothers to princes, royal servants were entitled to dress and be treated as free Swahili women. Photo: Compliments of Zanzibar National Archive, AV 31.32

Modern kangas reflect floral patterns and contemporary designs, and come in a variety of qualities (of material).

As well as dance, song, poetry, and literature, smart colourful clothes (kanga) are key to Swahili cultural heritage. There are a number of behavioural attributes (politeness, discretion, being quiet, hospitality) that are also considered very important to Swahili life.


Tanzania, Tanga. Washing clothes, compound of Mwanamvua Salehe December 2019. None of thes fabrics are kangas, but Chinese polyester fabrics, again which are beginning to replace kanga. Copyright Jenny Matthews

Kanga comes in many colours designs and can be wax printed on heavier cloth, or directly printed, but kanga is always two pieces of material. The kanga is often decorated with proverbs, sayings, strong beliefs or personalised insults. This dates back to the British colonial government, who in post abolition East Africa, favoured members of the Swahili society, reserving certain types of privileges and rights only to them. To access such rights, many ex-slave women claimed Swahili identity. So they learned Kiswahili and adhered to Islamic ways of behaving involving piety, discretion, politeness and a ‘gentle tongue’. Kanga was one of the few ways women could express ‘unIslamic’ thoughts, and is therefore an integral part of Swahili society, and women continue to use kanga to challenge social, religious, and political ideals within their society.

Swahili women chide bad behaviour through the publicly acceptable medium of kanga cloth. In this example, a well known proverb advises people to beware when someone speaks ill of others. By wearing this kanga around a well-known gossip, a disparaged victim exacted revenge.


 “An evil person does not talk about her evil deeds; she talks about other people’s evils”

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