chapter  4
Textile as commodity, dress as text: Swahili kanga and women’s statements
Pages 18

Swahili-speaking women along the East African coast and also inland in some areas wear rectangular cotton cloths, measuring about 150 cm × 110 cm and bearing patterns made up of two to three dominant colours (originally red, blue and black on a white background but now more varied). The cloth is known as kanga or leso, the latter term largely confined to Kenya. The term kanga means guinea-fowl and may have referred originally to an early pattern of white spots on a dark background, while leso is derived from the Portuguese word for handkerchief. But the Portuguese influence is relatively recent. Significant Indian Ocean trade is documented since at least the early ninth century AD, with the specific commercial and cultural ties between India and East Africa over the last few hundred years well captured in the history of the emergence of the kanga cloth (Amory 1985:41). According to Amory’s account (the first full history of the kanga) it was probably Indian cotton cloth which early on gradually replaced indigenous East African products, including barkcloth, eventually dominating production and distribution in the 1700s. By the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘flimsy’ Indian cloth called kaniki was being ousted by the stronger North American product locally called merikani, itself soon copied by British manufacturers in Manchester. But the Indian or South Asian involvement continued as instanced in the role of a Sunni Muslim entrepreneur from what is now Pakistan, ‘Abdullah’ Essak, who set up business in Mombasa in 1887 and claims to have been the first to have ‘names’ or sayings printed on the decorated cloth wraps used by women. British, American, Dutch and Japanese imports of cotton wraps dominated the East African market throughout the twentieth century. However, by the 1970s, textile mills were set up in Kenya and, in 1985, in Tanzania, although these still had to compete with foreign imports.