Swahili Kanga from Kenya

Step 4 of 5

Mtenda akitendwa huwaje

Mtenda akitendwa huwaje. The main message of a kanga is conveyed by the Swahili writing. The writings are mostly formulated in riddles or sayings and are thus an indirect way of saying certain things. For this kind of communication, there is no fixed meaning and it is very dependent on the context or the situation. Hence, there are limitless interpretations of the meaning of a kanga or why someone wishes to express a certain emotion.David Parkin, “Textile as commodity, dress as text: Swahili kanga and women’s statements,” in Textiles in Indian Ocean Societies, ed. Ruth Barnes (London: Routledge, 2005), 47; 50 This is called the double name. A woman cannot be held responsible for something she communicates on a kanga, as it cannot be proven that the message received is the same as the one the woman speaker tried to convey - or not. Rose Ong’oa-Morara, “One Size Fits All: The Fashionable Kanga of Zanzibari Women,” Fashion Theory Vol. 18 No. 1 (2014): 87

The writing on the kanga in the main picture is a perfect example of this. Mtenda akitendwa huwaje - ‘If the leader is led by someone else, how can he/she be a leader?’ The woman wearing this kanga criticized a leader - and she did so publicly without fear of being held responsible for this criticism.Thanks to Tirza Schipper who helped me figure out the translation and deeper meaning of this writing.