Chic and Versatile Fabrics of East Africa – Kikoy, Kanga and ShukaMarch 25, 2019
Since our earliest travels through East Africa, we’ve fallen hard for the beautiful fabrics that are ubiquitous throughout the region – the Kikoy, the Kanga and the Shuka. These cloths, collected over decades of travel, have been utilized again and again. They continue to gain popularity among friends as we routinely give them as hostess gifts. A cozy shuka at the foot of each guest room bed provides extra warmth on chilly evenings, and adds a bit of safari chic to any décor. Give a kikoy to each family member hosting you at a beach house, and you’ll surely be invited back!
The Kikoy in particular evokes scenes of the Kenya coast – – its endless beaches, warm waters, fresh seafood and sweet madafu (coconut water from the shell, cracked open to order). These colourful cloths were originally worn by men, but are now used equally by both sexes. Traditional kikoys have broad stripes on the long sides and come in beautiful, saturated brights and pastels. There are many variations, including darker colours and stripes that cover the entire cloth. Ends can be braided, knotted and even beaded. We always go for braided ends without beads – which tend to last longer after multiple washes. The 100% cotton kikoys get softer with every machine wash and drying. The fabric should be tightly woven with a smooth and even finish, where some lesser quality kikoys can fray at the ends or lose shape.
To wear as a sarong, wrap the kikoy lengthwise around the waist, and then fold down a few inches twice. The cloth will not fall off, provides complete coverage, and allows enough space at the ankles to walk.
Kikoys are incredibly versatile – use as a picnic blanket, tablecloth, beach towel, sarong, or scarf. Local women also use them as baby carrier. A kikoy comes in handy for warmth when entering an air-conditioned setting, can be used as a rain cover, and a headscarf when warranted by custom. Modesty is valued in Kenya, especially at the coast, among the older set, and in certain private club settings. A kikoy is so great to have handy for extra coverage when wearing a sleeveless top. Kikoys cloth is also used to make beach pants, embroidered caftans, totes, and terry lined pool towels. There are small sizes for kids and extra large sizes for bedcovers.
KANGA (Khanga, or Leso)
Kangas are colourful, printed cloths with a border pattern, a centre pattern, and a proverb or message in Swahili. The language is sometimes difficult to translate – or what some Kenyans may call ‘Deep Swahili’. Our favourites include:
Haraka Haraka Haina Baraka (Haste has no blessings, or haste makes waste)
Kila Kitu Mama, Dawa Yake Na Salama (Everything has its mother, its medicine and peace/security, or there’s no better medicine than a mother).
Siku Njema Ni Zawadi Ya Msafiri (A happy day is the gift of a traveller, or welcoming a guest brings joy to the host)
Sayings on the Kanga are often religious or spiritual. They are used to relay messages, or to express political and social aspirations. There’s even one with a photo image of President Obama, and a congratulatory statement, ‘Hongera Barack Obama’, which appeared in souvenir stalls after Obama’s first presidential election win. It’s prudent to ensure you understand the message before giving one as a gift! To be safe, ask the seller to translate the meaning before buying.
Typically worn as a wrap over women’s clothing, Kangas have many other uses: baby carrier, head covering, shawl, curtains and other household décor. They make beautiful pillow covers and bedcovers. Normally, you’ll buy a kanga as a set of two, which you then cut and use separately – for example as window curtains or a sarong and matching head wrap.
Shuka refers to the red blankets worn by Maasai men around the waist and over the shoulders. These usually have a plaid print, buffalo check or stripe, though shuka can also mean any mens’ wrap. Up until the early ’60s, Maasai men wore clothing of animal hides and leather, and some say the checkered red Shuka came with Scottish missionaries to East Africa. While the Maasai shuka is a more recent cultural icon, it has become closely associated with the Maasai and, more broadly, the African savannah. The memories associated with incredible safaris make them a perfect reminder of time well spent in the African bush.
During an extended walking safari, our guides assured the group that we were safe from any potential predators because the animals know the Maasai by their red cloths – and fear them. Fortunately, the guides each carried a big spear….
Back in the States, shukas don’t scare anyone, but make perfect outdoor blankets for picnics in the park.
For more on the unique arts and crafts found on an African Safari, check out these posts:
Beautiful Indigenous Crafts to see – and buy – on Safari
Local African Arts Scene