Culture & Life

The Kanga – An Artifact of Swahili Culture

“We wear Kanga every day in every situation. Kanga saves us from the expenses of readymade clothes that we can’t afford. With Kanga we are always covered!”

A popular East African traditional garment, Kanga (or Khanga) is worn by women and occasionally by men throughout the African Great Lakes region. The bright colored fabric printed in a variety of designs symbolizes respect and dignity in African womanhood, and is primarily used to cover and pray with. Apart from its protective, dignifying and decorative role, each with its own ‘name’ or slogan (in the Kiswahili language) often printed on the ends of the fabric, the Kanga has cultural significance. More than just fabric, it’s a means of communicating (direct or indirect) messages (personal, political, social, religious ideas and aspirations) often in the form of proverbs, aphorisms, metaphors, and/or a poetic phrase. Messages such as Tunaipenda Africa yetu  (meaning “we love our Africa”) are common and attention grabbers. “Swahili speaking people do not just buy kangas because of their color or beauty but are mostly lured by its message”. It serves a dual purpose – women express themselves by dressing in beautiful fabric worth reading.    

  • the kanga project

Embodying what the Kanga signifies – a medium of expression “often traded or purchased for friends and family to communicate messages implied by the phrase on the cloth” – in September 2016, photographer Muna Ally “set out, camera in hand, to send joy to the hearts of mothers” in rural Zanzibar. The outcome was the founding of The Kanga Project created with the spirit to “celebrate women with gifts of Kanga” intended to “send messages of love not only by the act of giving, but by the proverbs and poetry found on the fabric”. Thus far, the project has reached 1500 women in 10 villages in Kisiwa cha Zanzibar.

  • the kanga project

What’s more, following a holistic approach, dedicated to supporting local economy and keeping the circle of support within the community active, the project purchases its Kangas only from traders on the Island. Kangas are locally produced in Tanzania and Kenya.

Watch Muna Ally giving “joy to the hearts of mothers” in rural Zanzibar. 

All photos by Muna Ally 

Visit The Kanga Project 

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