Thursday, 22 July 2010

Swahili gift "Khanga" transgresses boundaries

It was just a cloth that came with the emergence of slave trade along the coastal line of East Africa, but its revolution and esteem put it on the map of Africa's lifestyle.

The Leso or Khanga as it is commonly known (wrapper or shawl worn around the waist ), is no longer much of a fashion statement in Kenya today or any other East African country -- certainly not what it was in the 1980s, when our mothers would strut around elegantly wrapped in it, making very respectable fashion statements.

Nonetheless, even today, any African women strongly attached to her culture must wear a leso as respectable attire at some point, especially during important social festivals. So how did this legendary piece of clothing come to influence African fashion for so long?

Incredibly, the origin of the Khanga (leso) was in the nefarious slave trade. Female slaves in the 19th century had to be "adequately" clothed before being transported to the Middle East. Because of the local religious obligations, many considered the Khanga a cloth befitting the occasion.

Traders from Gujarat in the Indian sub-continent, who had been visiting the East African coast for centuries, cleverly noted this and responded to the market demand by supplying a black cloth called the Kaniki. Whack was worn by slaves and poorer women.

The Merikani, another expensive cloth worn by high-society ladies, was supplied from North America. A pure cloth, it was embellished using simple dots and lines. Later, red color was added to the initial white, as artists experimented with dyes.

Block printing was the next progression, as patterns chiseled into cassava and sweet potatoes were imprinted onto the cloth. These, therefore, became the hallmarks of the Khanga.

As women wearing the colorful fabric gathered in the groups and chattered in the evening breeze of the Zanzibar sea-shore, men likened them to East Africa's ubiquitous guinea fowl (black and white dots resembling a guinea fowl) -- "Khanga" in Swahili -- with its brightly coloured spotted plumage.

Emancipated female slaves from the East African coast and Zanzibar, together with other women in the region, demanded ever- changing designs, setting in motion the trends that would make the Khanga a high-fashion item in the 20th century.

After the socialist revolution in Zanzibar, there was a lull in the leso trade, but only briefly. Soon, entrepreneurs from India were manufacturing the garments and exporting them to Zanzibar and the whole of the East Africa.

Before India became the leader in the industry, most machine- made Khangas came from Europe and China. In Kenya , there is only one manufacturing plant, while there are five in Tanzania.

The general presentation of the Khanga has improved with time. Text messages and proverbs are among its most recent additions.

This development was pioneered by the famous Hajee Essak family, who originally came from Zanzibar but settled in Mombasa in 1910. Back then, the language used was Swahili and the script Arabic.

The sayings are not just decorative. They have profound meaning both to the wearer and viewer. A typical one goes" Mama ni mama hata hawe nani" (a mother is a mother whatever else she may be).

Historically, such inscriptions solved the communication barrier in a culture where women were not heard or seen publicly. They gave a voice to the voiceless.

Interestingly the cloth is not worn in India , where it is made, because of the enduring stigma of its close association with slave women.

Seyyid Barghash who ruled Zanzibar in the early 20th century, banned noble ladies in his court from wearing it, claiming that it reminded him of the "dirty stinking black woman at the slave market."

The Khanga has not entirely escaped the onslaught of modernization, both in its material and message. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester have been employed in its production and it is now common to see political, religious and social messages written on it.

Even portraits of powerful leaders have found their way onto its material. The hard face of Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- the famed Latin American communist revolutionary -- is seen on many fashionable Khangas in Nairobi.

Other notable faces include the felled South African liberation movement activist Steve Biko, Mau Mau war hero Dedan Kimaathi and Agustinho Neto, the Angolan poet and revolutionary.

Spreading far and wide from its heartland in Zanzibar, the versatile Khanga can now be found on the East African coast, in the hinterland, in Madagascar and the Comoro islands and throughout the Middle East.

As Christed De Wit, a leading researcher of early forms of fashion in East Africa, notes in her book Evolution of Fashion in East Africa: "The Khanga has transgressed all boundaries of culture, religion and language. It has become the Muslim Swahili gift for those who seek to embrace it."


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