Kangas are rectangular printed cotton fabrics, sold in pairs, that have been worn by women in East Africa from the eighteenth century to the present day. Their changing designs embrace motifs from a global range of decorative traditions, with inscriptions that include traditional Swahili proverbs, political slogans and public information messages. They have become a transnational phenomenon, manufactured in China and India as well as Tanzania and Kenya; new designs appear frequently. Kangas are an area of developing scholarly attention and lively online discussion. The aim of Textiles That Talk is to create a systematic digital archive of the many hundreds of kanga designs.
As everyday items of apparel kangas articulate a language of interpersonal relations. The inscriptions send a message from the wearer, sometimes to a specific person—a spouse, maybe, or a love rival—sometimes to the world in general. A few examples. The inscription on a green-and-indigo floral kanga asks a question: Mbona mmenuna—”Why are you sulking?”. A multi-coloured, polka-dot kanga says Hujui kitu—“You don’t know anything”. A red and yellow kanga says Alaa Kumbe—”Oh, I see”. And a sky-blue kanga with a traditional cashew-nut motif says Mama nipe radhi kuishi na watu kazi—”Mother, give me your blessing; living with people is hard”.