Kanga and other printed textiles of eastern and southern Africa

Project team

  • Chris Spring, project leader

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas 


  • Kiprop Lagat, National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi
  • Dr Charles Gore, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
  • Dr Hassan Arero, Keeper of Anthropology, Horniman Museum, London

Supported by

  • The British Museum - The Townley Group

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This fieldwork and collecting project is researching the history, development and cultural significance of kanga and other printed cloth traditions in eastern and southern Africa.

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own ‘name’ or slogan written in the Ki Swahili language in the same place in every design. Kangas are sold in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment, one being worn as a shawl or headdress, the other as an Islamic ‘modesty’ garment during the nineteenth century, but over the years they have become a vehicle for expressing decidedly immodest ideas and aspirations and have become a primary means of communication among the women of eastern Africa.

Today, kangas are worn by women of all faiths among the Swahili speaking peoples and play a major role in all the major life cycle ceremonies in a Swahili woman’s life – birth, puberty, marriage and death -  yet they may also be used for the most mundane of functions. It is this ambivalence which makes kanga cloth almost emblematic of multi-faceted Swahili society.

Historically, hand-stamped varieties of kanga have been locally produced in eastern Africa, though until the late 1960s machine-printed versions were produced overseas, first in Europe, then in India and the far east. Today kangas are produced in textile mills in Tanzania and Kenya as well as being imported from overseas, principally India. They are an ongoing part of the great trading network which has thrived for at least two thousand years between the many peoples of the Indian ocean littoral.


The project aims to build on fieldwork undertaken primarily in 2002/3 and on subsequent research, culminating in a case study on display in the Sainsbury African galleries at the British Museum. This has provided a platform on which the project aims to build, extending a collaborative network of partners, both in the UK and eastern Africa.

The three main areas of research can be divided into the historical, the technical and the cultural, though there is a considerable overlap between the three.

Further research is needed into the different strands which make up the history and development of kanga, particularly pre-World War Two. Some of this will be done in Mombasa in the archives of the Kaderdina family; some in the Zanzibar archive; some in museums and institutions in Europe and Africa and some through the collections of private individuals.

The past and present levels of African production of kanga, both hand-stamped and mechanized, are by no means clear, nor is the pattern of overseas production and its impact on local economies. Comparatively little research has been done into the profound cultural significance of kanga – religious, social, political, educational – and this will be a primary focus of the project.

British Museum curator Chris Spring will work with colleagues in Africa and the UK, but also in the wider Indian Ocean region: curators, teachers, students, traders, artists and of course the primary consumers and source of kanga lore – the women of eastern Africa. He also hopes to collaborate with the film company Mostly Movies to produce a broadcast quality documentary on the subject.

Further information

Kanga – film and display in the African Textiles Today case in the Sainsbury African galleries, British Museum.


S.Clark, ‘The politics of pattern: the interpretation of political and national iconography on kanga cloth’, in H.Arero & Z. Kingdon (ed.), East African Contours, (London, Horniman Museum, 2005), pp. 85-97

D. Parkin, ‘Textile as commodity, dress as text: Swahili kanga and women’s statements’, in R. Barnes (ed.), Textiles in Indian Ocean Societies, (London and New York, Routledge), 2005, pp. 47-67

C. Spring, ‘Not really African? Kanga and Swahili culture’, in H. Arero & Z. Kingdon (ed.), East African Contours, (London, Horniman Museum, 2005), pp. 73-84