A brief history of the Kanga cloth

Kanga is best described as “the colourful garment you will see in many areas of Tanzania as well as the African great lakes region. It is basically a rectangular piece of pure cotton cloth that has a border all around it and usually printed in bold designs and bright colours. Kanga fabrics come in two quality levels, waxed cloth or synthetic fabrics.”

The Kanga (“Khanga”) cloth today is used for a multitude of things all-round the African continent. We can plot it’s historic use with that of African women using it as a means of daily dress, a sling for childcare and a convenient and comfortable clothing choice. The Kanga cloth existed (and still does), as a site of social and political commentary even outside of its daily use. Historians generally agree that Kanga finds its origins in East Africa, namely in the Swahili culture (Tanzania). Adorned with Kiswahili phrases and proverbs, the kanga played a communicative role over and above it’s everyday use. “Kanga has also been used to gather together people in different campaigns.” The ways in which messages were printed on the fabric worked as a means to spread awareness on different issues whether social or political. What many might find prominent today is the representation of various political parties and leaders on these very fabrics, or kanga-like materials.

Through trade and general interest, the fabric was able to find expression in other African countries (e.g. Malawi and South Africa etc.) Depending on the region, one might find various manifestations of the Kanga fabric and its use. The Kanga has become more than a piece of fabric as history would have it. The designs, phrases and words found on each kanga cloth speak to its roots in culture. In addition, the mere convenience and everyday use of the cloth speaks to the significance of its role in Swahili culture, and many other African cultures familiar with the Kanga.

Representations of the Kanga cloth can be found in various Unknown Union designs. With shirts, pants and hats made from original Kanga fabric. There exists a history behind each piece produced by UU. Stories that have been and continue to breathe, stories of people rooted in culture.

Sources for more information about the Kanga fabric:



(Matimu Rikhotso for Unknown Union)

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Buhlebezwe Siwani  


Koketso Mbuli


Sanele Xaba