The meaning of kangas

A close up of a kanga proverb

A close up of a kanga proverb

A Kanga is many things. It is the work cloth, the wrapper you put around your waist or your bust when you go into the kitchen to make a batch of chapattis. It’s what you give a friend as you welcome them into your home. It’s a gift at a wedding or a scarf around your neck. For me though, it is often simply, a comfort prop.

Kangas help me fulfil cultural mores when I visit homes of uncles who believe women shouldn’t wear trousers; my compromise is to wrap a kanga around my waist. When I need a towel to dry me off, when I need a scarf to keep me warm, when I’m travelling and need a blanket, I can always find a kanga handy to pass and go. The day my stepmother died, I walked up to the dark grill of a kiosk in Nyeri town and asked the shop keeper to give me a kanga, any kanga. He handed me a single piece – a cheap white strip of papery cotton with purple umbrellas on it, inscribed with the words ‘asante Mama kwa malezi ulio nipa’, thank you mother for the care you have given me.

Beyond sheer coincidence, kanga is a cloth which relates to life events – like a horoscope in a daily newspaper it tells back to you the things you know about yourself. Textile carries memory – there’s a kanga for every occasion.

by Renee Mboya.

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