For as long as I can remember, I have always been a great lover of kanga, the East African cotton fabric with bold designs, bright colors, and a Swahili saying, aphorism, or slogan printed along its bottom border. If you’ve ever seen children wearing kanga wrapped around their bodies and tied behind their necks, then you have a perfect picture of me as a child. If you were to drop by my house unannounced today and I didn’t have a chance to run and change into something “decent”, then chances are that you would find me in a kanga, though this time worn in the kifua style (wrapped around my body, passing under my arms), rather than tied behind my neck. Why? For several reasons. First of all, there’s nothing that I find quite as comfortable as a soft, well-worn, 100%-cotton kanga. Not sweats. Not a boubou. Nothing! In the Dar es Salaam heat, how better to keep cool? (To be honest, though, it’s not really about the heat. Even in the dead of Canadian winter, I’d crank up the heat so I could wear a kanga at home. ) Also, the bright colors and ornate patterns of kanga somehow always manage to give me an instant mood lift.
Recently, my love for kanga has taken on a new dimension. Beyond the reasons mentioned above, I’ve now also come to appreciate kanga for its jina (‘name’ in Swahili), which is what the writing on kanga is called. Care to know how that happened? Here goes.
Two years ago, I found that I greatly enjoyed wearing a green-and-white kanga that I had nipped from my mother . This was unusual for two reasons: first, I don’t generally like green (especially on clothing) and second, the kanga‘s design was rather plain. My pleasure in wearing this kanga came from what was written on it, its jina, which read: Mlisema hayawi mbona yamekuwa? (Translation: You said it doesn’t/wouldn’t happen, so how come it’s happened?). Although this didn’t point directly to something that had already taken place in my life; at the time, I was living an unconventional life, working towards seemingly impossible goals. I hoped, of course, that I would one day achieve these goals and then be able to ask this question of all the naysayers I’d met along the way. The kanga’s jina was feisty…and I LOVED it! From then on, kangas for me ceased to be just about aesthetics and became, too, a form of expression and communication like they have been for countless Swahili-speaking women since the early twentieth century.
A short while ago, I found myself on Uhuru Street, which arguably has the widest selection of kangas in Dar es Salaam. Although I wasn’t really kanga shopping; for the pleasure of my spirit, I decided to look around and see what was new in the world of kanga. After discovering some shocking kanga jinas the last time I was kanga shopping; this time, this is what I decided to focus my attention on. The first thing I noticed was an unusual number of kangas with Islamic jinas, such as Mungu tuzidishie imani tufunge mwezi wa Ramadhani (translation: God, increase our faith so that we fast successfully during the month of Ramadan). I then remembered my brother telling me, the night before, that the next day would be the first day of Ramadan. (On that note, I wish a successful and spiritually-rich month of Ramadan to all my Muslim readers! ). Other jinas that caught my attention were:
- Mzoea nazi samli haiwezi (A person used to coconut cannot deal with ghee)
- Sibora kitu bora utu (Humaness is better than material things)
- Ukijua kupokea ujue na kutoa (If you know how to receive, then know too how to give)
- Usiniwekee majungu bahati kanipa mungu (Don’t spread rumors about me, my luck is God-given)
- Njama nimezisikia nangojea vitendo (I’ve heard the evil plans, now I await the actions)
- Msemaukweli ni mpenzi wa mungu (A truthful person is one who loves God)
- Niko kwangu yanini majungu (I’m in my own home, so why all the nasty rumors?)
- Tuliza roho yako mimi ni wako (Calm your spirit; I am yours)
- Mema na mabaya yapo lakini tusamehane (The good and the bad exist, but let’s forgive each other)
This got me curious about what my own current collection of kangas had to offer in terms of sayings. Checking when I got home, I found that my kangas say:
- Siri si umbeya (A secret isn’t gossip)
- Mungu ndiye kimbilio letu (God is our refuge)
- Nemekuja kutembea sikuja kwa umbea (I have come to visit, not to gossip)
- Kuomba si kupata mungu akipenda atakupa (To ask is not to get; if God wishes, he will give you)
- Muumbaji ni mmoja njoo tuishi pamoja (The Creater is one; come let’s live together)
- Upendo ni nuru ya maisha (Love is the light of life)
- Maisha ni kutafuta siyo kutafutana (Life is about seeking [for one’s own], not about witch-hunting)
Tell me, do you have a favorite kanga saying? If so, what is it, what does it mean, and why do you like it so much? If you are an avid wearer of kanga but never pay much attention to the words written on them, how about checking now (and sharing) what’s written on your favorite kanga? Does this saying in any way reflect something that’s going on in your life? Let me know by leaving a comment below.
If you would like to know more about kanga, its history, or kanga sayings, then check out the following links: Kanga (African garment), The History of Kanga, Kanga Writings, and List of 254 Sayings on Khangas. Otherwise, that’s it from me. I wish you a great weekend and, as always, look forward to hearing what you have to say.
Until the next time,
P.S. I apologize in advance if any of my Swahili-English translations are not spot-on.