“Ya mahaba ndweo maradhi upeo.”
The intoxication of love is the ultimate disease. -Swahili proverb
Ever suffered from a broken heart? A jealous heart? A heart haunted by insecurity? An unrequited love? A heart obsessed with the impossible? Chances are there’s probably a perfect Swahili proverb inscribed on a dizzyingly gorgeous kanga cloth for you. Love and heartache are stitched into the fabric of everyday life through the ubiquitous kanga, that square-shaped cloth sold as doti (pairs) all over East Africa and worn by women and girls everywhere.
In fact, it’s the writing that makes the kanga unique, differentiating it from other vibrant textiles like the kitenge or kikoi.
Many kanga proverbs are known for their mafumbo (ambiguity), often leaving the reader puzzling over its multiple meanings as she wraps herself in its message. Kanga, usually exchanged as gifts between women, have the power to strengthen or destroy a relationship, depending on the particularities of meaning and context. That’s because the kanga says everything that can’t be said out loud.
In a culture that prides itself on extreme politeness and respect, the kanga confronts taboos that can’t be addressed – jealousy, sex, disappointment, luck, love, lies, passion, and death. The kanga is the ultimate public billboard for personal feelings.
Never out of fashion or season, thousand of kanga designs and messages are produced on a weekly basis, hailing from kanga factories as close by as Urafiki Textiles in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania or as far away as Chavda Textiles in Mumbai, India. Ranging in cotton-density quality and design creativity, kanga-buying always involves a careful consideration of text and image.
Sometimes you’ll find a potent message with a seemingly innocuous pattern, or a bombastic pattern with a bland message. Finding the right balance is part of the joy of kanga hunting. If you’re deep into Swahili culture, you’d never purchase the kanga for its design alone – the significance of the kanga lies in its poetry. It was hard to choose because there are so many good ones and new designs appear weekly in the markets. I tried, then, to choose kangas that are equally compelling to read and wear.