Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.


Copyright 2016 by MacKenzie Moon Ryan.


While today kanga textiles are commonly thought of as bearers of east African or Swahili culture, this industrially produced textile emerged from a complex history of global trade networks serving local consumer demands. Worn widely throughout the east African region, this textile emerged as a fashionable garment preferred by women along the Swahili Coast of east Africa in the late nineteenth century. Shortly after its introduction in 1886, these inexpensive printed textiles became favored consumer goods throughout the wider region, stretching from present-day southern Somalia, throughout Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, and into eastern DRC and northern Mozambique. (Closely related cloths were even adopted in the Comoros Islands and Madagascar). Known as kanga in Tanzania and leso in Kenya, these textiles display colorful, graphic designs and are most often worn by women as wrapper. These textiles are ubiquitous throughout the east African region, as staple items of women’s attire and household use. Kanga textiles are the first thing a newborn baby is wrapped in and the last thing a deceased woman or child is shrouded in. They protect adolescent girls while undergoing initiation ceremonies and are given to brides at kitchen parties to celebrate their upcoming weddings. Kanga textiles gained increased international fame when an Obama kanga design was produced upon the president’s election in 2008 and a second commemorative Obama kanga was produced in summer 2013 to mark the American president’s visit to Tanzania. Kanga textiles are sold in pairs, and as mass-produced, industrially printed textiles, they have retained adherence to a standard composition: a central graphic image, called mji in Swahili, or town; surrounded by a wide, continuous border, or pindo, completed by a Swahili phrase, called jina or name.