Kanga: Different Meanings in English & Lots More About the Swahili Fabric

Kangas drying in Zanzibar

Did you come to this post wondering about the word kanga in English? If so, you are in the right place.

Let’s begin with what to call the East African fabric kanga in English. 

Kanga (Fabric) in English/Khanga in English

Quite simply, the East African fabric kanga/khanga remains kanga/khanga in English too.

Kanga in English remains kanga
The Swahili fabric kanga still remains kanga in English, or khanga (alternate spelling).

Kanga Ndege in English/Kanga in English Bird/Kanga Bird in English/Ndege Aina ya Kanga in English

If you are looking for a translation of the Swahili word kanga, and you don’t mean the fabric but the bird, then the word you are looking for is guineafowl

Kanga in English is guinea fowl
This type of kanga in English is guineafowl.

Do these two Swahili meanings of kanga have any connection? Absolutely! The fabric kanga got its name from the guineafowls that were (and still often are) printed on it.

Now you know!

What Is a Kanga?

Kanga is an East African cotton fabric with bold designs, bright colors, and a Swahili saying, aphorism, or slogan printed along its bottom border (see the first two images at the start of this post).

Kitenge in English

According to Collins English Dictionarykitenge in English remains ‘kitenge’. It is, therefore, correct in English to speak of ‘a kitenge dress’ for instance.

In popular culture, kitenge is often referred to as ‘Ankara’ cloth/fabric in English. This is what the fabric is called in Nigeria, and this has seeped into mainstream anglophone speak.  

Kanga Animal

Kanga Meaning in English

Other than the East African fabric, kanga in English can mean a couple of other things. 

In Australia, the word kanga is used informally to mean kangaroo.

Kanga in English is an informal way, in Australia, to refer to a kangaroo
Kanga in English is an informal way, in Australia, to refer to a kangaroo

Kanga is also another word for a prison warder.

कंगवा in English

कंगवा is the Marathi word for comb.

Njiwa in English

Would you like to know what njiwa another bird name in Swahili means? If so, it would be my pleasure to tell you. Njiwa is the Swahili word for both pigeon & dove

The rest of this post is about kanga, the fabric.

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For as long as I can remember, I have always been a great lover of kanga, the popular Swahili fabric.

How to Wear a Kanga

If you’ve ever seen children wearing kanga wrapped around their bodies and tied behind their necks, then you have a perfect picture of me as a child.

If you were to drop by my house unannounced today and I didn’t have a chance to run and change into something “decent”, then chances are you would find me in a kanga, though this time worn in the kifua style (wrapped around my body, passing under my arms), rather than tied behind my neck.

Why?

For several reasons.

First of all, there’s nothing quite as comfortable as a soft, well-worn, 100%-cotton kanga.

Not sweats.

Not a boubou.

Nothing!

In the Dar es Salaam heat, how better to keep cool? (To be honest, though, it’s not really about the heat. Even in the dead of Canadian winter, I’d crank up the heat so that I could wear a kanga at home. 🙂 )

Tanzanian Women in Kanga

Also, the bright colors and ornate patterns of kanga somehow always manage to give me an instant mood lift.

Kanga Jinas

Recently, my love for kanga has taken on a new dimension.

Beyond the reasons mentioned above, I’ve now also come to appreciate kangas for their jina (‘name’ in Swahili), which is what the writing on a kanga is called.

Care to know how that happened?

Here goes.

Some years ago, I found that I greatly enjoyed wearing a green and white kanga that I had nipped from my mother ;-).

This was unusual for two reasons: first, I don’t generally like green (especially on clothing) and second, the kangas design was rather plain.

My pleasure in wearing this kanga came from what was written on it, its jina, which read: Mlisema hayawi mbona yamekuwa? (Translation: You said it doesn’t/wouldn’t happen, so how come it did?).

Although this didn’t point directly to something that had already taken place in my life; at the time, I was living an unconventional life, working towards seemingly impossible goals.

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I hoped, of course, that I would one day achieve these goals and then be able to ask this question to all the naysayers I’d met along the way.

The kanga’s jina was feisty…and I LOVED it!

From then on, kanga for me ceased to be just about aesthetics and became, too, a form of expression and communication like they have been for countless Swahili-speaking women since the early twentieth century.

African kanga cloth

Swahili Kanga Sayings Today

A short while ago, I found myself on Uhuru Street, which arguably has the widest selection of kanga in Dar es Salaam.

Although I wasn’t really kanga shopping, I decided to look around and see what was new in the world of kangas.

After discovering some shocking jinas the last time I was kanga shopping, that’s what I decided to focus on this time.

The first thing I noticed was an unusual number of kangas with Islamic jinas, such as Mungu tuzidishie imani tufunge mwezi wa Ramadhani (translation: God, increase our faith so that we fast during the month of Ramadan).

I then remembered my brother telling me, the night before, that the next day would be the first day of Ramadan. (On that note, I wish a successful and spiritually-rich month of Ramadan to all my Muslim readers!). Other jinas that caught my attention were:

  • Mzoea nazi samli haiwezi (A person used to coconut oil cannot handle ghee)
  • Sibora kitu bora utu (Being humane is better than material things)
  • Ukijua kupokea ujue na kutoa (If you know how to receive, then know too how to give)
  • Usiniwekee majungu bahati kanipa mungu (Don’t spread rumors about me, my luck is God-given.)
  • Njama nimezisikia nangojea vitendo (I’ve heard the evil plans, now I await the actions)
  • Msemaukweli ni mpenzi wa mungu (A person who tells the truth is God’s darling.)
  • Niko kwangu yanini majungu (I’m in my own home, so why all the nasty rumors?)
  • Tuliza roho yako mimi ni wako (Calm your spirit; I am yours)
  • Mema na mabaya yapo lakini tusamehane (The good and the bad exist, but let’s forgive each other)
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Women in Kanga

My Personal Collection of Kangas & Their Swahili Sayings

This got me curious about what my own current collection of kangas had to offer in terms of sayings.

Checking when I got home, I found that my kangas say:

  • Siri si umbeya (A secret isn’t gossip)
  • Mungu ndiye kimbilio letu (God is our refuge)
  • Nemekuja kutembea sikuja kwa umbea (I have come to visit, I didn’t come to gossip)
  • Kuomba si kupata mungu akipenda atakupa (To ask is not to get; if God wishes, he will give you)
  • Muumbaji ni mmoja njoo tuishi pamoja (The Creater is one; come let’s live together)
  • Upendo ni nuru ya maisha (Love is the light of life)
  • Maisha ni kutafuta siyo kutafutana (Life is about seeking not going after each other)
A woman selling African kanga cloth

Tell me, do you have a favorite kanga saying?

If so, what is it, what does it mean, and why do you like it so much?

If you are an avid kanga wearer but never pay much attention to the words written on them, how about checking now (and sharing) what’s written on your favorite kanga?

Does this saying in any way reflect something that’s going on in your life?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.

If you would like to know more about kanga, its history, or kanga sayings in general, then check out the following links: List of 254 Sayings on Khangas.

Otherwise, that’s it from me.

I wish you a great weekend and, as always, look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Until the next time,
Biche

Photo credits: Wikipedia; Tanzania Blog; PanBK at the English-language Wikipedia, eboy, jamiiforums.comMiwani for Mwanza Mission

14 comments

  1. Hiya Biche,

    I have recently fallen in love with African prints and fabrics, and among these the kanga. I have to say that given my poor grasp of Swahili, I look mostly to the print. Further, as opposed to you, I have my tailor make me something, which means the words are usually hidden or that piece of fabric cut off; I guess I should start urging my tailor to let the words feature prominently from now on (and also make more effort to find out what the ‘jina’ is).

    Anyway, kangas are indeed beautiful, and I wish I could go kanga shopping myself but alas, I have to rely on assorted relatives from when they travel to Dar. I suppose there is a place in Kampala but I would imagine the variety is not as wide!

  2. Hey Biche, I beg you!!!! when u next see the one that says Calm your Spirit am yours… please get it for me so i can wear it special for Tata Boy (your BIL). Otherwise you know i have started collecting Kangas… they are just a delight and Comfortable!!!!! they have replaced Nightgowns (too much detail here?) wa they are too comfortable….I am yet to have my first outfit made out of them…. the one i ordered didn’t fit too well unfortunately so I have put it aside till i can come back to my tanzanian Designer..Actually come to think about it my love for kangas is strongly influenced by my cousin and her mother… thank you sooo much for introducing me to them.

  3. thanks, biche. this was a great post. i always enjoy reading kangas, because the more difficult swahili is a great test and tutor of my newest language. i’m subscribing to your blog — always anxious to read what others have to say about tanzania and east africa…

  4. Japo watamba kwangu huna namba is one of my favorites.Love khangas and kikois they are too functional. It is said a proper woman doesn’t travel without one or the other.

  5. @Vive – Please let me not mislead you! As much as a kanga’s jina is interesting and can be significant, I recommend that you continue cutting it out when having an outfit made because it greatly limits what you can do with your kanga if you try to keep its jina right side up (so that it’s easily readable) and unobtrusively placed. What your tailor currently does is the right way to go!

    @Julian – It’s my pleasure to nurture your love of kangas. What’s the point of having Tanzanian cousins? 😉 I’ll definitely buy you that kanga when I next see it. I loved it too! Not only was its jina pretty, so too were its design and color. I think you (and Tata Boy) will like it. As for kanga as nightwear, Swahili women are really onto something! 🙂

    @JamesBrett – Welcome to ChickAboutTown! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now; it’s nice to see you on mine. I feel the same way about the language aspect of kanga sayings – I always end up learning new words in an attempt to understand what they mean, which brings me to…

    @Gish – Thanks for for sharing one of your favorite kanga sayings. Can you translate it please? I’m not sure what watamba means. 🙂 Otherwise, I totally agree with you that kanga and kikoi are so functional!

    Thank you, all, for your comments! 🙂

  6. Hello Biche,
    I’m Ayumi from Japan.
    It was pleasure to find your blog to know african culture.
    i found your blog while searching for some information of kanga.
    i like them and hopefully i could sell them in japan and do some activity to tell african culture.

    thank you for your information and i want cheer you up.

    ayumi

  7. Hi Ayumi,

    Welcome to ChickAboutTown! Thank your for your message of encouragement. I am glad you enjoyed this post about kanga sayings. You mentioned that you like kanga? Where did you come across them?

    Biche

  8. I love your blog and your forays into interesting places. Thanks for sharing your insights and finds.

  9. Hello Biche,
    I just discover your blog and i LOVE it!!!
    I’m from Comoros Islands and the culture is really really closed to tanzanian culture!!

  10. I don’t suppose you could translate this? “kaseme wewe mimi vikao vimenishinda” i’ve not been able to find a translation and google translate is less than helpful!

    1. It means something like: “You go talk, as for me, I am tired of the meetings”. The context to me sounds like a couple/neighbors/friends/relatives who have been continuously quarreling and taking the dispute for resolution at some sort of council. The wearer of the kanga is saying, she’s tired of all the dispute-resolution meetings and the other party should go ahead without her. It’s a feisty but very amusing (to me) kanga saying.

      Anyone want to correct me on my translation?

      Oh, and welcome to ChickAboutTown! 🙂

      B.

  11. I have a kanga that says: “Radhi ya mama ni sitara ya mwana”. I cannot find a translation. Can you kindly tell me what it says?
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Ciel,

      Welcome to ChickAboutTown! Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. The word sitara is stumping me a bit so I am asking around for you. Luckily, I live in Dar es Salaam so I should be able to get back to you soon. I’ll let you know as soon as I have a trustworthy translation.

      Biche

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