With the current explosion of African textiles in global fashion, I am fairly sure that many of you reading this will have one or two pieces making a home in your wardrobe. Typically, if the cloth (Ntuma/Ankara) was manufactured for the West African market, the colours and patterns would be the dominant features. Any wording to explain the meaning behind the patterns would be relegated to the edges of the materials or become part of the hem of a skirt or wrapper.
There are exceptions of course. Businesses, institutions and political parties tend to feature names from their company, university on these textiles or use it for commemorative occasions, and this form of communication is not unique to Ghana. It happens in Tanzania and neighbouring countries as well, as a way of building brand awareness and conveying important messages to the public.
But what seems to be slightly different in East Africa is how contemporary and niche these forms of communication can be. It was an eye-opener for me to learn that in countries such as Tanzania where the khanga cloth is king, words, patterns and colours hold almost equal importance on a textile canvas.
“Because of the significance of the messages written on them and their communication power, Swahili speaking people do not just buy khangas because of their colour or beauty but are mostly lured by its message”.
Tanzania-born fashion designer Christine Mhando and founder of the CHiCHiA brand shared this information with me following a workshop she spoke at. The workshop was organised at the end of 2016 by Africa Fashion Guide – an information-based platform. The khanga is a rectangular piece of cloth that typically has a central pattern and a contrast border with a message across it. Apart from their protective and decorative function, these khangas play an important role in disseminating information and this is one of the main reasons why locals buy them, Mhando said. Messages come in the form of riddles, sayings, metaphors and proverbs and have become a valuable medium of expressing personal, political, social and religious ideas and aspirations.
According to Mhando, whose label has most recently been worn by Beyoncé, khangas are very much part of popular culture. In Tanzania, new styles can feature the latest local pop lyrics or sayings celebrated in youth culture. Imagine the words from Shatta Wale’s (Ghanaian Afrobeats and dancehall artist) latest single emblazoned on your Ankara shirt or dress! I like the idea that these cloths which form an integral part of everyday wear by women in particular in Tanzania, have such a flexible communicative function.
It reminds me of a situation Mhando recounted during the Africa Fashion Guide workshop where one woman wanted to send out a message to another who had been overly friendly with her husband. According to Mhando, this scorned wife donned a cloth with a Swahili saying warning to her that she was ‘aware’ of the advances the woman was making to her husband. Without the wife uttering a word, the other lady got the message!
I know that the tide is turning in Ghana and we have some amazingly creative designers out there who are pushing new boundaries. T-shirts with quirky sayings such as ‘Make Fufu Not War’ promoted by Kayobi Clothing immediately spring to mind. But what if those sayings were available in traditional cloth?….Food for thought?….
Mhando’s collections have a heavy focus on pattern, process and social responsibility, and are made in small workshops in Tanzania’s capital city Dar Es Salaam where she was born.
Mhando is a London-based designer with a first-class honours from the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, Guildford. As well as having Beyoncé as a fan, the CHiCHiA brand has collaborated with retailer ASOS Africa and has been a feature at a number of fashion week events.
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