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Saturday, June 19, 2010


Khangas are to Tanzanian women what shoes are to American women. In America, many women love shoes, can't get enough shoes, are always on the lookout for the next cute pair of strappy sandals or stiletto heels. I've never indulged in the shoe shopping fetish, mostly because my feet are so wide that it can be a real chore to find a pair of shoes that fit and it's just not fun. Also, shoes are really expensive.

I'm happier with the whole khanga shopping thing here in Tanzania. Khangas are rectangular pieces of cotton cloth, printed with bright designs and colors. The design has a wide border around it with either a repeating pattern or one big picture in the center. A Swahili proverb is printed just inside the border on one long edge. They sell two repeats of the pattern in one khanga, then the buyer cuts them apart and hems the two short edges. They only cost from 2,000 to 5,000 T shillings, depending on the quality. That's $1.50 to $3.50! And they fit everybody, because you take this big rectangle and wrap it around yourself, either at the waist or under the armpits--totally adjustable, one-size-fits-all. They are traditional East African wear for women and have many uses. Apron, skirt, shawl, head wrap,bathrobe, loungewear, baby carrier, bowl cover, picnic blanket.... They are given as traditional gifts for many occasions, such as weddings or church confirmations. When my Somalian friend Rhama invited me to her house and treated me as such an honored guest, she presented me with a khanga.

Here are two websites where you can read more about khangas:

They're sold everywhere, usually folded up and hung over a cord at eye level at the front of a small shop. That's how I've bought a few, walking up a street and the color catches my eye, and the vendor says, "Karibu, Mama," (welcome, ma'am), in an enticing voice. These women know the shopping look that glazes over the customer's eye!

The first week I was here, a particular khanga patterned with big philodendron leaves caught my eye hanging in front of a shop near Kundayo Apartments. I had seen this khanga last year in Dar es Salaam and didn't buy it, and it's been preying on my mind ever since. The man running the shop took it down and unfolded it to show me, along with a second blue flowered one. A woman standing on the customer side of the counter with me advised me in Swahili that the leaf design was a better quality, and she thought I should go with that one. I agreed, and asked the price. The vendor told me 7,000, which I remembered from last year is too high. I offered 5,000 and he looked chagrined because he'd been caught and disappointed because he didn't get the mzungu price out of me. But the woman gave me a high-five and a big smile because I knew the price.

The philodendron khanga. This is how you buy a khanga, with the two identical prints still joined together. The factory prints a long roll of them and they are cut into lengths of two for sale.

After I moved out to Njiro, I started noticing a pretty spring green khanga hanging in front of a tiny shop a few yards off the road out to my house. I tried to ignore it, but it just kept catching my eye. So what the heck, for $3.50, it's not like I was buying shoes or anything. The young woman who sold me this khanga gave me the price of 4,000 shillings when I first asked. She has a tailor business, with her sewing machine set up on the porch right behind the line of displayed fabrics, so I asked if she could cut the two pieces apart and hem them for me. She did it, and didn't charge me anything for the work. A second young woman with her sewing machine right next door gave her the look that meant, "Aren't you going to try to get a higher price out of the mzungu?" My tailor was tempted, I saw it flit across her face. But she decided to be honest with me. So I went back a few days later with the philodrendron khanga and a new pair of jeans that needed hemming and hired her. Again, she gave me the local price. I told her in bad Swahili ,"Asante sana kwa bei poa sio bei mzungu," meaning ,"thank you for giving me a good price and not the mzungu price."

The two Njiro tailors (the one I like on the left) working behind their tempting array of fabrics for sale.

My khanga collection. The newest one is on the left. I have one more blue one here, but it's currently pinned up over the window in lieu of bedroom curtains. When I  tried banana beer  up in the hills around Kilimanjaro, the nice Chagga woman who served it to me was wearing the same green khanga I own (center).

Most Tanzanian women pick out khangas based on the proverb. I can't translate the proverbs at all, even if I know every individual word. The verbs are always in some convoluted form, because there are a million verb tenses in Swahili. And, being proverbs, they aren't literal and they aren't complete sentences. Also, many of them are meant to be ambiguous. So me, I just go for the pretty colors! See the narrow white rectangle along the edge of the dark green khanga in the picture above? That's where they print the proverbs. I wrote down all the proverbs from my khangas and took them to my Swahili lesson on Friday and asked my teacher, Mr. Solomon, to translate them. Even he had a bit of trouble putting some of them into English--which made me feel better! Here are my proverbs:
Habari ndiyo hiyo!
That's the news!
(Everybody laughs when they see this one, because it's a line from a popular children's song. Chris, this is from your blue khanga.)

Udugu mzuri mpendane sio mnyanyasane
A good relationship consists of loving each other, not harrassing each other

Tufurahi sana harusi yetu imefana
Let's be very happy that our wedding was a success

Heri kuniambia kuliko kuninunia
It's better to tell me than to sulk  

Mimi mcha mungu ukarimu ni sifa yangu
I am close to God and well known for my generosity

Japo umenitangulia kuni wahi ni vigumu
Though you are ahead of me, it's hard to catch up with me


  1. Sounds like fun and a lot less expensive than shoes. Plus,so much more you can do with them.

  2. How fun! I am very interested with the words written in a khanga, and of course I care for the colors too! I love Khangas:) Is Kundayo the guy who lives around Kimandolu area? If he is the one what a small world!

    1. Yes,that's the same Kundayo family!