Weekly Newsletter June 23, 2020

Posted by Sandra Zhao on

Textile Spotlight: Kanga

The first time I visited Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city in the heart of the Swahili coast, I remember seeing women all over the Old Town wearing a textile that I'd never seen before with a decorated border and Kiswahili phrase underlying a large central design. Some wore them as skirts, others headwraps, and still others had cut and sewn them into shirts and dresses. I soon learned that this textile is deeply ingrained in Swahili culture, and quickly took delight in the sayings that are central anchors to each fabric. 

The origin of the kanga, sometimes called leso, is contested, but most likely the fabric derived from kerchief squares, called lencos, brought by Portuguese traders from India and the Middle East as early as the 16th century. They are always printed and sold in pairs, two identical 1 1/2 meter rectangles generally divided and worn around as a head covering or shawl and around the waist. The motifs take inspiration from the wide ranging cultural influences that have converged over a millennium along the Swahili coast, from the Persian boteh to Rajasthani bandhani to the Bantu cashew nut.

Today, kangas are produced across East Africa, including by Thika Cloth Mills in Nairobi. While the sayings were only added in the early 20th century, they are now are central to the textile. It's always fun to see who is wearing what, and why they chose it (or received it!). Sometimes the messages are political or commemorative, printed specifically for an event or organization, but often they're reflective of everyday life. Some of us can probably relate to "I won’t eat in the darkness for fear of my neighbor (I do what I want!)" and all of us can relate to, "There is no one like mom."

Do you have a favorite kanga saying? Let us know!

GIVING UPDATE // Equal Justice Initiative

We are so proud to share that thanks to your support, we've raised $6,500 so far that we have donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. We believe deeply in the work that EJI is doing to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S., challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society and we are grateful that together, we can make a difference!

WHAT WE'RE LISTENING TO // 1619 by Nikole Hannah-Jones

I rarely listen to a whole podcast from start to finish in one go, but once I started 1619, I couldn't stop listening. Hosted by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, this podcast examines the impact of slavery on every aspect of American society from the very roots of the economy and American capitalism, to the development of the healthcare system, to land ownership and agriculture. Informative, illuminating and engaging, this podcast is essential listening.


WHAT WE'RE READING // The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This essay doesn't need much introduction, other than that it is essential reading by one of America's leading thinkers today. "To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying...

What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history."

WHAT WE'RE READING // for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange

I've been missing the experience of theater and live performance, and this masterpiece while truly all-encompassing performed, takes on a whole different power and resonance when read. Glorious in its beauty of language and deeply felt in experience, reading this choreopoem will feel vital in this moment.

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