Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kanga Cloth - Fashion & Utility

One of the most ubiquitous images in Tanzania is the kanga or kitenge cloth worn (mostly) by women.  It's used as an everyday item as well as for special occasions.  Typically, you see women wearing kanga's like a sarong but over western-world clothes, like t-shirts and pants.  The wannabe anthropologist in me did some field work on this phenomenon by taking my inquiries to the remote corners of my house.  I spoke with Christina, our nanny, and she indicated that the kanga is worn as a sarong usually out of either modesty, cultural traditions or purely for fashion.

Some people (and its not just generational) think its inappropriate for a woman to wear pants because "it accentuates their backside" (Christina, 2010).  Rather than just wear a long skirt (which Christina does, but her sisters do not!), they wear the pants underneath to function somewhat as an "insurance policy" from any rogue bursts of wind or overly curious male children. During special occasions like birthdays, funerals, parties or holidays, the kanga is transformed into an outfit - skirt made of kanga, blouse made of kanga and sometimes even a matching headdress made from kanga.

The Arusha Spouses Association.  Speaks to our shared humanity - all cut from the same cloth

Beyond fashion, kanga also serves a utilitarian purpose, most commonly carrying babies. I think the whole premise of Happiest Baby on the Block was based on the baby wearing out-of-sheer-necessity you find in Africa.  Believe me, it doesn't elude me when I'm walking in our neighborhood with Millie in my $100 Ergo.  For their sake, I hope the local women are getting a good chuckle out of it.

Kanga has made its way into the wazungu (Kiswahili for 'white person') world as well making up the base of many curios and trinkets that tourists can take home from their travels.  Better yet, it also shows up in the accessory world in the form of bags, purses, ballet flats, necklaces etc.  Once we come back to the States, I should be easy to spot - I'll be the woman with faded and stained solid color tee's but blinged out in kanga-lined ballet flats and tote bag. 

For the time being, we're doing our best to make our house kanga-chic so check out the new kanga's going on the throw pillows! Whatever scraps of fabric we have left over, I usually turn them into cloth napkins.  You know, doing my part for the Earth (i.e. trying to offset the disposable diapers we use that are subsequently burned.... yeahyeahyeah, I can hear you gasping way over here).

At the kanga shop.  From many....

.... to three

What images stand out most from some of your travels?  How have you been able to preserve those images - photographic or otherwise? 

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