Kanga: The Most Colorful Sight In Tanzania

Written by Thomson Safaris

There’s one thing we can guarantee every Thomson traveler will see on his or her trip. No, it’s not a favorite animal. It’s a kanga!

These brightly-colored cotton cloths are the de facto national dress in Tanzania. They first appeared in the mid- to late-19th century in East Africa, especially on Zanzibar, which was a center for the cloth trade at the time. Though no one is entirely sure of the origin of kanga, a popular story says they were first made by fashion-forward women who bought multiple men’s handkerchiefs, sewed them together to form a large rectangle, and started wearing their new creations as everything from head scarves to skirts to dresses.

Early kanga were simpler than those women wear today. Spotted patterns on the cloths reminded people of the coloring of the kanga bird, the Swahili name for the guinea fowl, and thus the popular name for these cloths was born.

Kanga is the Swahili name for guinea fowl – The original kanga
Photo by Thomson Safaris guests Miller and Lynette Ross

Like all styles, kanga have evolved over the years. Early in the 20th century, it became popular to include a saying or proverb on the kanga. This phrase, called the jina, can be a useful communication tool for Tanzanian men and women alike. A man giving a gift might choose a saying about beauty or love; a woman who’s upset with a friend might give or wear a kanga with a phrase like “njia mwongo fupi,” which means “the way of the liar is short.” In a country where women’s place in society, and their ability to openly speak their minds, is still very restricted, the kanga often acts as a means of honest communication women otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage in.

Kanga fashions vary regionally as well. Tanzania is particularly well-known for kanga commemorating political events, such as the election of Barack Obama.

There are dozens of ways to wear a kanga, from simple tucked skirts and toga-style dresses to complicated halter tops. Women in Tanzania also commonly use them as baby carriers, headdresses, and even décor.

The most common way to wear a kanga is also the easiest to execute; tuck it around your waist as though you were wrapping a towel.