Above: Ozi village in Tana Delta. Little girl draped in a khanga. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: The East African Nation media December 2008

The ubiquitous khanga has made its mark, in no other place than the White House, the official residence of the American president.  And as we know, the new president-elect is non other than Barack Obama, whose father hailed from Kenya.   It may be coincidence but it’s a double whammy for Kenyan presence on the most powerful nation on earth.  The rectangular piece of cloth deriving its name from the bright-coloured guinea fowl, turned into a Christmas ornament, is hanging pretty on the White House Christmas Tree and as every proud Khanga owner knows, there’s always a message on it.  The message on the khanga reads ‘Watu Kwa Amani’ – which means ‘People For Peace’ – a very appropriate message for this time and season of the year.

Pure cotton kangas that are now collectors item drying on Pate island Lamu - copyright Rupi Mangat (800x533)
Pure cotton khangas that are now collectors item drying on Pate island Lamu – copyright Rupi Mangat

”We sold this particular khanga to a lady called Phyllis Ressler,” says Mr Pushpendra Shah of Haria’s Stamp Shop in Biashara Street, Nairobi, celebrating its 50th year in business.  “Phyllis gave the Khanga to her sister in the USA.  Her sister made a Christmas ornament of the khanga and sent it to the White House and they in turn hung it on the White House Christmas tree,” narrates Mr Shah proudly.

Phyllis Ressler is herself an avid Khanga collector and at the turn of the millennium, she organized a khanga exhibition at the Nairobi Museum helped by the Shah’s of Haria Stamp Shop.  Sometimes referred to as ‘lesso’ in Kiswahili derived from the Portuguese word for handkerchief, “lenço”, the first Khangas may not have had any writings on them until around 1910.

Khanga Klamour

Regardless of colour, creed or class, every female in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania has some contact with the Khanga – she may own one or many, use it as a household item, accessory or simply drape is around her waist as she tills her ‘shamba’.  Even Madonna – and who doesn’t know Madonna, has been seen supporting it. The khanga’s popularity is its versatility, no better documented than the hilarious comic booklet titled ‘101 Uses’ by Jeanette Hanby & David Bygott and published by Haria Stamp Shop.

Khanga as a scarf. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Khanga as a scarf. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The Khanga arrived on the east coast of Africa with the advent of the Portuguese sailors from the 15th century.  The Portuguese sailors used them as handkerchiefs and traded them with the Swahili at the coast.  The lightweight, loose weave fabric was ideal for hot climas such as the humid coast and the Swahili women, sewed the pieces of cloth together, unaware that they were placing the cotton cloth on the international fashion scene in time to come.  Like the sari – a five-yard piece of cloth worn by Indian women, the 5 by 3 foot khanga became synonymous with the Swahili women.  And like the sari, which is included in every bride’s trousseau, so is the khanga for the Swahili and by extension, the African bride.  Something peculiar to all khangas is that there is always a proverb on a khanga.

“We think this khanga design was done by an American Peace Corp volunteer some 38 years ago,” explains Mr Shah.  The U.S. Peace Corps volunteers working in East Africa call it the “Peace Corps Khanga”.   “However the biggest customers of this khanga are the Maasai, because of their favourite red colour,” says Shah.

There are thousands of proverbs and if one was to do a book on the khanga proverbs and designs it would be likely to run into volumes, ranging from the classics to the contemporary, with mobile phones and other modern gadgets printed on them or of warnings such as of the pandemic HIV/AIDS.

There are of course theories as to why there are proverbs on the khangas, and perhaps the modern T-shirt with messages printed on them may be an influence of the khanga.  Many of the writings on the khangas are common Swahili proverbs, which the wearer uses as a means of expression such as love, warning or words of wisdom.

Some Sayings

Khanga for any use. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Khanga for any use. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Written mostly in Kiswahili, the proverbs are usually short one-liners but philosophical.  A saying like ‘Asiyekujua hakuthamini’ would translate as ‘He/she who doesn’t know you, doesn’t value you’.  ‘Ala! Kumbe!’ is a common Kiswahili expression of surprise which translates as “I see!  Is that so!”  Another one is “Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba” literally meaning ‘Little and little, fills the measure’ a way of saying that all small things collected can make up big things. “Kazi mwanamandanda, kulala njaa kupenda” translates as ‘Work is an obedient child, sleeping hungry is one’s choice express’ meaning hard work pays. “Mtumai cha ndugu hufa masikini” says ‘A person who relies on his/her relative’s property, dies poor’ encouraging self-reliance.  “Uzuri wa mke ni tabia si sura” reads as ‘A wife’s beauty is in her character, not her looks’ akin to ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.  “Zawadi ni tunda la moyo” translates into “A gift is a fruit from the heart.” A nifty one is “Fifty-fifty: mimi na wewe,” meaning partnership, me and you.

Khangas were originally printed in India and some in China.  Today, they are printed in Kenya.