Dress in Tanzania and the Kanga

Kanga I received from Peace Corps Tanzania the day I arrived here. Means “Mothers compassion and love.”

Appropriate Dress:

So what is the most appropriate dress to wear in Mwanza Tanzania? I was told before I came that pants were alright for women to wear. Well that is somewhat true. As I walk the hill to and from work and look at all the other older woman I see none in pants. I had quit wearing dresses to work in the U.S. for the most part so brought just a few dress/skirts but also a few nice pants and tops which I wear. I am not sure if it is because I am the Mzungu or my pants or my age why I get the stares. I do see occasionally some younger woman wearing dress pants to work and a younger faculty member does too. I see no one in jeans so thankful my new jeans were dark blue and sort of look like dress pants. But for the most part dresses below the knee and Kangas are worn the most. The neighbor women and those selling things on the street and market mostly wear Kangas. The only shorts I have seen are on a young teen and a few little children. Most of the school children wear uniforms and even though the temperature is in the 80s I see some wearing sweaters. The rainy season started a couple of weeks ago I think so it has gotten a little cooler. Why I brought 4 sweaters I am not sure. I did wear them in the early morning a few times in Dodoma during training and wear them to work when I go in early but then have to take them off by midmorning as no air conditioning here except in the regional police chief’s office.

A side note on police.

And no we were being introduced by our boss not arrested and brought in. Though today on the way to church the Australian anesthesiologist doctor who is picking me up since he lives near me was stopped 3 times and the first time I had not put on my seatbelt yet as I was holding a hot pot of food on my lap. So the police did say something to meabout the seatbelt. I was going to use my card of “ I have the new police chief’s phone number, do you want me to call him”. He actually gave Bekah and I the office and personal cell number.

Speaking of police one of the guards at the hospital where you enter the main gate which has two gates is finally acknowledging me. I usually have to go through the one next to the main guard house not the one the locals go through even though I have a badge. So the guard who lets the locals go through started giving me a hard time about my Kiswahili last week — he speaks something very fast and when I can’t understand it he says “you should know by now” So in language class this week I had my Kiswahili teacher tell me how to say “when you let me go through your gate, I will speak Kiswahili “ and smile. Will see how this goes. The language teacher said he is talking to me so is trying to be friendly. Otherwise he would just ignore me.

Mens dress

Businessmen and men faculty wear button down shirts or dress shirts, some suitcoats, dress pants and polished dress shoes. The men street vendors wear pants and t-shirts from all over the world. I can’t figure out how to keep my black shoes polished and the best pair I brought is wearing out from the rocks I walk over daily out of our housing compound and walking to town the short cut. So I have 2 other nice pairs and sandals but don’t wear them much as I am afraid I’ll sprain an ankle if I don’t wear sturdy shoes on the rocks.

Though this is not a predominate Muslim community there are many walking the street here. Nearer the coastal cities and Zanzibar where there are more Muslims you see the traditional fully covered women and men in long dress but I see many here as well.

The Kanga Cloth: History, Meaning and Use

Kitenges and Kangas

Kitenges are similar to kangas but are of a thicker cloth fabric and have an edging on only a long side similar to sarong. Kitenges (plural vitenge) in Swahili serve as an inexpensive, informal piece of clothing that is often decorated with a huge variety of colors, patterns and even political slogans. It is often worn by women and wrapped around the chest or waist, over the head as a headscarf or as a baby sling. The printing on the cloth is done by traditional batik technique. Today these prints, are made commercially and almost completely roller printed. Many of the designs have a religious, political or tribal pattern or meaning. The cloth is used as material for dresses, blouses and pants.

Janelle (physician) and Tess(nurse midwife) volunteers in Dodoma
My first house decoration. When I was little I was Jennie the giraffe and had a collection

In Malawi, Nambia and Zambia, Kitenge is known as Chitenges and can be used on occasions and in many ways either symbolically or for practical reasons with uses in different setting to convey messages. The uses of Chitenges are for baby slings across the mothers back or front, gifts to woman, framed, table decorations, wrap for the cold or beach.


The Kanga is a rectangle of pure cotton cloth with a border all around it, printed in bold designs and bright colors. It is as long as the span of your outstretched arms and wide enough to cover you from neck to knee, or from breast to toe. Kangas are usually bought and worn as a pair — called a “doti”

The kanga (or khanga; from the old Bantu (Kiswahili) verb ku-kanga, to wrap or close), is a colorful garment similar to kitenge, worn by women and occasionally by men throughout the African Great Lakes region. It is a piece of printed cotton fabric about 1.5 m by 1 m(64” by 44”), often with a border along all four sides (called pindo in Swahili), and a central part (mji) which differs in design from the border, and the writing (ujumbe or jina) which can be a form of communication.

Pam, Nurse in Dodoma

The kanga is a simple but elegant body wrap that functions as a wardrobe for African women. They often come as a pair. Folded, wrapped and tied, add a little imagination and you have a skirt, sundress, turban or toga. I’m sure if I tried to tie it around me it would fall off and what would I wear under it:)

You also see babies born in them to identify whose baby it is as the mom makes it unique and brings it to the hospital when she is to deliver. They also use kangas as a way to wrap the baby to their mothers back which again I would not trust my wrapping job.

Sneak pictures while on the bus of the mom with the baby

Kangas are the perfect gift. Husbands give kangas to wives. Children to their mothers, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend. Men can sleep in kangas, and often wear them around the house; women wear them everywhere. Kangas are extremely popular throughout East Africa not only for clothing but for their multiple uses A poorly designed kanga, or one that fails to match the season doesn’t deserve the name and the best it can be used for could be as a kitchen apron or a baby diaper

Daughter of the traditional healer we visited
Shar, physician reading children of traditional healer books in Swahili


There are two views of where Kangas originated. One is that Kangas originated from Mombasa women starting a new fashion by sewing leso (headscarfs) together to make the Kanga. The new design was called “leso” after the kerchief squares that had originally been brought to Africa by Portuguese traders. The leso quickly became more popular than the other kind of patterned cloth available. Before long, enterprising coastal shopkeepers sent away for special designs, printed like the six-together leso pieces, but as a single unit of cloth. Another origination version is that kangas originated in Zanzibar where Indian cloth merchants were and that they copied the Mombasa design. These early designs probably had a border and a pattern of white spots on a dark background. The buyers quickly came to call these cloths “KANGA” after the noisy, sociable guinea-fowl with its elegant spotty plumage.


Kanga designs have evolved over the years, from simple spots and borders to a huge variety of elaborate patterns of every conceivable motif and color. For a century, kangas were mostly designed and printed in India, the Far East and Europe. Even today, you will see kangas that were printed in China or Japan. But since the 1950’s, more and more kangas have been designed and printed in Tanzania, Kenya, and other countries in Africa.

Sayings on the Kanga

Early this century, Swahili sayings were added to kangas. Supposedly this fashion was started by a locally famous trader in Mombasa, Kaderdina Hajee Essak, also known as “Abdulla”. His many kanga designs, formerly distinguished by the mark “K.H.E. — Mali ya Abdulla”, often included a proverb. At first, the sayings, aphorisms or slogans were printed in Arabic script, later in Roman letters. Many of them have the added charm (or frustration!) of being obscure or ambiguous in their meaning. If you find a motto that you can’t figure out, ask several different Swahili speakers. You will get an equal number of different explanations! Some typical kanga sayings are listed below.

New kanga designs keep appearing in great variety: — simple or intricate abstract patterns; homely themes such as chickens, crops, babies and fertility; pictures of famous attractions like mountains, monuments and wildlife; even pop stars! There are noticeable regional differences. For example, most of the kangas with mottos are made in Kenya, while those commemorating social or political events are more common in Tanzania.

The Kanga is still evolving. Like the T-shirt, but incomparably more elegant and useful, it is a valuable medium for personal political, social and religious expression. As an art form as well as a beautiful, convenient garment, the kanga has become an integral part of East African culture.

Kanga is not just like any other rectangular piece of cloth, no matter how colorful it may be. It is an artifact of the Swahili culture and as such it should be designed with extreme care to appeal to its users.

A man giving a gift might choose saying about beauty or love. A woman upset with a friend might give or wear a more negative meaning kanga. So the kanga often acts as a means of honest communication. Tanzania Kangas vary by region and are particularly well-known for commemorating political events, such as the election of their president of Barack Obama. We will see if one comes out about Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton:)

What makes a kanga truly unique is the Swahili proverb or saying which an expression of oneself is. Some of these writings are common Swahili proverbs or just messages the wearer wishes to send. It may be a message of love, caution, warning, reassurance, or just an act of

The Kanga the Peace Corps gave us in welcoming us to Tanzania the first day says. Sifa ya mama ni huruma na upendo which means “Mothers compassion and love.” I love the Blue and the meaning.

Mothers compassion and love

Some positive examples I like and will have a hard time deciding which to take home. Below is the KSwahili and the literal mearning and some additionally the english meaning.

Zawadi ni zawadi, usichoke kupokea A gift is a gift, don’t get tired of receiving

Zawadi ni tunda la moyo A gift is a fruit from the heart

Akiba haiozi It’s always good to save or invest for the future.

Sisi sote abiria dereva ni Mungu We are all passengers, God is the driver

Ewe Mola tuepushe na mahasidi O Lord, save us from the evil ones or aA good prayer when surrounded by vultures that are ready to feast on your ‘prey’.

Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba Little and little, fills the measure or Small things, when combined together make up big things.

Kazi mwanamandanda, kulala njaa kupenda Work is an obedient child, sleeping hungry is one’s choice or When you work hard, it is certain that you will succeed. On the other hand, if you don’t work hard, you are bound to have a miserable life.

Kila mwenye kusubiri hakosi kitu With patience, you always stand to win.

Mpaji ni Mungu. God is the Sustainer.

Mche Mungu upate rehema zake milele Fear God so that you earn His everlasting blessings

Rafiki akupendae humuona penye haja A friend who loves you, you’ll always see him/her when you’re in need

Majivuno hayafai Greed is never useful

“Kutoa ni moyo usambe ni utajiri” Giving is from the heart not from the wealth

Shukurani zetu pokeeni na dua njema tunawaombea Please accept our thanks and good prayers

Mke mwema pambo la nyumba A good wife is a home’s adornment or A wife full of love, lights up the home with her compassion.

Uzuri wa mke ni tabia si sura A wife’s beauty is in her character, not her looks or Don’t judge a book by its cover!

Akipenda chongo huita kengeza A person in love with a one-eyed person calls her/him “cross-eyed” or When a person is in love, he/she hardly sees the bad attributes of his/her lover. She/he will always belittle or find excuses for any faults on her/his lover.

Embe mbivu yaliwa kwa uvumilivu A ripe mango has to be eaten slowly Of course the writing doesn’t refer to an actual “ripe mango”. It refers to a love partner who is willing and ready. She/he has to be handled gently and with care.

Parent Child sayings

Motto umleavyo ndivyo akuavyo The way you raise a child is what he/she will grow to be or The upbringing of a child is what molds his or her character. It is a lesson given to parents to raise their children well for them to have better future.

Penzi la mama tamu, haliishi hamu Mother’s love is so sweet that you never have enough of it.

Uchungu wa mwana aujuae mzazi A parent has the ultimate feelings for her/his child

Pilipili iko mtini yakuwashia nini? A chilli pepper on its plant, how could it make you hot? or “This is none of your business!”

Someday I’ll get brave enough to wear one with a safety pin. Enough of Tanzanian Proverbs. School starts this week!!!Excited!!