Extremely popular throughout East Africa, the kanga (sometimes called leso) is a colorful rectangular piece of fabric that is distinguished by the different Kiswahili sayings or proverbs adorning each piece. Artifacts of the Swahili culture dating back to the mid 19th century, kangas are a well-admired form of clothing worn by women and often paired as shawls or headdresses, but are also used as curtains, tablecloths, bedding, mats, etc. Used by people of all faiths, kangas also often play a key role in major life passages such as birth, puberty, and marriage. There is a question as to which part of the East African coast – Mombasa or Zanzibar – kangas originated from. Though their usage was initially confined to the coastal communities of Kenya and Tanzania (Mombasa, Lamu, Pemba, Zanzibar, etc.) the popularity of kangas has spread throughout the African continent.
“Kanga” is thought to be named after the sociable and chatty guinea-fowl because the earliest designs were reminiscent of the birds’ black and white dotted colors. Guinea hens’ communication is described by some as sounding like “Come back, come back…” – distinct from the “Chi-chi-chi…” sounds of reponse from their male roosters. The paisley patterns [** see below] – which are popularly used in kangas – also bear a stylized resemblance to the guinea-fowl’s profile. Kanga designs continue to evolve every year with noticeable regional differences; as do the printed sayings – the earliest of which is said to have become a staple of the basic design around 1910. Though the varieties of decorative features are attractive, people mainly buy kangas for the messages that are written on them. These messages are often in the form of riddles, metaphors, proverbs, poetic phrases or aphorisms which, as such, make the fashionable kanga fabric a valuable and potent medium of communication.
Following are a few examples of kanga designs and some of the printed sayings that may be found on them – translated from Kiswahili and supplemented with additional commentary by Professor Angaluki Muaka of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities African/African-American Studies Department:
I love kanga sayings. They’re brilliant, wise, witty, powerful and sometimes just mischievous. Mischievous ones tend to be obscure and difficult to interpret. Kanga sayings are occasionally specific. So if you’re going to buy a kanga as a present for someone, then you must choose one with the appropriate saying.
Napenda Lakini Nashindwa – I like (the idea) but I’m unable (to do/get it): Said by a person who most probably likes or admires another secretly but for various reasons can’t get into a relationship with them; or a person who has been asked for a relationship, but as much as they like the idea, they can’t get involved for various reasons.
Usimwingilie aliyopewa kapewa – Don’t attack a person who has been given (something) (because) s/he was just given. (Interpreted differently, the grammar of the sentence could change the meaning of the saying slightly: Don’t attack him/her. S/he was just given whatever s/he was given).
Mola ibariki hii ndoa isipate doa ila ipate poa – Lord bless this marriage so it does not get a blemish but blessing: In addition to the literal meaning, the saying focuses on the rhyme of its words (ndoa, doa, poa). [NOTE the 6 green **paisley patterns based on the guinea-fowl profile, also evident in a couple of previously-depicted kangas]
Wacheni majungu, mapenzi yetu hayawahusu – (Y’all) stop too much talk. Our love is none of your business (majungu = large clay pots that are sometimes used to amplify sound).
Upendo na amani ametujalia Mungu – God has blessed us with love and peace.
Sitajali kuumia mengi nimevumilia – I don’t mind getting hurt (again), for I have (already) put up with a lot.
Usia wa mama ni mwongozo duniani – A mother’s advice is guidance in (matters of) the world: A kanga with this saying would be perfect for a mother.
Alaa Kumbe! – Oooh! So that’s what it is (and not what you made me think)!: An exclamation intended to show that one has just realized that the truth is contrary to an impression s/he was given earlier.
Matatizo nimeyazoea – I’m used to problems (cf Sitajali kuumia mengi nimevumilia above): This is the title of a famous Kiswahili pop song of the 1980s by Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars
Tuombeane kheri mpaji ni Mungu – Let’s wish each other well, God is the giver.
Pole kwa yaliyokufika Mungu ndiye atakayekuongoza – Sympathies for what befell you! God will be your guide: This would be a kanga for someone dealing with a misfortune.
Mambo kwangu yanafana mtabaki kufinyana – Everything is (going) well for me. You’ll remain (behind) pushing each other (the reciprocal form of – finya, -finyana, literally means to squeeze each other).
Following is a kanga saying that Prof. Muaka came across several years ago. He suggests that its obscurity is really the apex of the writer’s mastery of Kiswahili.
“Nilichotaka nimepata, kazi kwenu vishihata”
Trans.: I’ve found what I desired (and now) the (tough) job is for you loud-mouthed little creatures.
“Vishihata” is definitely the problem word in this saying. SHIHATA is the acronym for Shirika la Habari la Tanzania (Tanzania News Agency). For a long time, government agencies held the monopoly of news gathering and distribution, including broadcasting, in most African countries. So, it was not unusual to hear people who liked meddling in others’ business and talking too much referred to as “VOK” (Voice of Kenya), for example. The “vi-” prefix on “shihata” here serves to belittle, demean and ridicule these loud-mouthed individuals as little creatures.
This, in my opinion, is a saying by (most probably) a woman who has been despised and talked about a lot for not having something, most probably a boyfriend or husband. But this is an intelligent, reserved woman who was looking for Mr. Right and was not in a hurry to take off with any man. So she tells her detractors that she has now found the right man for herself, and now the tough job of finding someone else to despise and talk about falls on their shoulders. Alternatively, she may just be telling them that now it is their headache to find good partners for themselves since the ones they got in a hurry aren’t as good as hers and won’t do them much good.
NOTE: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign lists hundreds of additional kanga sayings and Swahili proverbs (click to search) under the following categories:
In remembrance of you on your b’earth’day, big bro… ❤