Chris Spring, Curator, African collection, British Museum
When I began to prepare for the Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre, I realised at once that zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia (which were aimed at calming the restless spirits within those possessed and at which lyres of the type featured in the show would have been played), represent one among several different ways for women to communicate a range of ideas and concerns which cannot be spoken out loud in daily society. My fieldwork in eastern Africa over the past 15 years has taught me that kanga cloth and taarab music are two other means of communicating widely used by women in the region.
The very first kanga I acquired for the British Museum on Zanzibar back in 2002 (pictured above) was not printed in Africa at all but in India and it looked more like a Damien Hirst spot painting than anything else. On it was printed the Swahili slogan HUJUI KITU ‘YOU KNOW NOTHING’, and that marked the beginning of a steep learning curve for me. ‘Who would wear such a thing?’, I asked my Tanzanian friend George Ngungulu. ‘Oh, maybe an older woman as a way of putting down her younger rivals’ he replied, ‘“You young people think you know everything, but HUJUI KITU – you know nothing!!” In other words, it’s a way of letting off steam without having to open your mouth or indulge in anything physical’, he explained.
That kanga, together with many other textiles from eastern and southern Africa, is currently in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter as part of the Social Fabric: African Textiles exhibition which I originally curated at the British Museum and which is now one of its ‘Museum in Britain’ touring exhibitions.
The unspoken language of the kanga provides a way of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties which inevitably arise, very much in the way women benefit from zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, though in zār women are permitted – even expected – to let off steam by behaving in outrageous ways which are definitely taboo in wider society. In common with zār, kangas regularly move between the realms of the secular and the sacred. They play a central role in all the major life-cycle ceremonies in a Swahili woman’s life, and yet may be used for the most mundane of functions. It is this ambivalence that makes kanga cloth almost emblematic of multi-faceted Swahili society.
While working in Tanzania and Kenya I also learned that there are interesting parallels between the development of kanga and of the style of musical performance known as taarab, which accompanies important occasions in coastal eastern Africa and on Zanzibar in particular – though the classical style of taarab originated in Egypt. I remember a wonderful performance by a taarab orchestra, fronted by a female singer, in a revered music club in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Listening to the singer, and watching women offering her money, I realised that there is a distinct similarity between the messages contained in kanga inscriptions and the sentiments expressed by the female taarab singers at the request of the women in the audience: both are vehicles which allow Swahili women to become involved in everyday personal or local disputes and rivalry by voicing opinions which cannot be overtly stated. So successful were both kanga and taarab in this role that legislation had to be brought in to regulate the vehemence with which they were being used in Tanzania!
Working with Emma Liwewa, vice-principal of the Bagamoyo College of Arts on the Tanzanian mainland, I learned how kangas are also worn in different styles to suit particular occasions or moods. One style known as ushungi is used when walking along the beach with one kanga wrapped tightly around the head; at home this headdress is removed and is draped loosely around the shoulders. When going to the market the style is known as kilemba, a name which derives from the turbans traditionally worn by Arab men, and refers to the way in which women wear the first kanga wound around their heads. You can see a video of the film I shot in the African galleries at the British Museum.
HAMWISHI KUNIZULIA HICHO NI CHENU KILEMA – ‘Your problem is that you can’t stop backbiting’, says the inscription on another wedding kanga. With a traditional design in black, red and white, the kanga would have been worn by the bride and all her friends and relations, and would be aimed at anyone who might be angry or jealous of the marriage. The inscription on another kanga from Tanzania (pictured below) reads MWEMBE TAYARI – ‘the mangos are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself!
Preparing to travel up country from the main bus station in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania and indeed in eastern Africa, I noticed on the backs of buses and daladalas (minibuses) an interesting male response to the female-orientated battleground of kanga. The rear panels of the vehicles, particularly long-distance buses, were decorated with a variety of colourful images, while the bumpers carried inscriptions such as UKIWAONA KAMA WATU: ‘they look like reasonable people but they’re not’, NI HAYO TU: ‘that’s all we have’, or TUTABANANA HAPA HAPA: ‘we’re staying put’ – all three referring, according to my friend George back in 2003, to the government’s attempts to evict groups of migrant workers. These panels and their inscriptions are not only visually similar to the designs of kanga cloth, but they also fulfil one of the primary functions of kanga, of taarab music and of zār ceremonies in delivering messages and allowing behaviour which might otherwise be hard to articulate or perform.
As always, Africa provides food for thought on the way we go about things in the West.
The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3, at the British Museum from 18 June until 16 August 2015.
Chris Spring’s book African Textiles Today is available from the British Museum shop online.