Memories of my grandmother come to me in many forms. One that stands out is a ritual of inheritance that follows her death in 1994. Days after her burial, my cousins and I are standing in line waiting for our aunt to allocate a khanga to each one of us from our grandmother’s collection. In it are intricately and simple-patterned cotton fabrics that she has collected over the years. We are not interested in these patterns. Instead, we are looking for the Kiswahili aphorisms written on each khanga.

It matters what the khanga says. It is the poetry we are inheriting from our grandmother, the poetry we will wrap around our waists when it is time for work. It matters because these are postcards from the grave. And so one khanga after another, my grandmother writes to us:

Upendo wa Mungu wanizunguka (I am surrounded by God’s love)
Asubuhi na mapema wacheni kunisema (do not speak ill of me so early in the morning)
Mjumbe hauawi (do not kill the messenger)

She writes to us of god, of love, of anger. She writes to the world, teaching it to see her the way she desires to be seen. She tells us to talk back to the world; not too much and not too little. This same ritual of inheritance is repeated when my mother dies in 1995, where in the years that follow, I become obsessed with collecting not just her khangas but also every bit of her that remains in photographs and in the memories of others who knew her.

Of these objects that hold the memories of my mothers, the khanga remains the most intimate. There is something haunting about inheriting the objects of the dead—the painful reminders of their absence. But there is also something comforting. These are rituals of death, but these are also the rituals of a continued life. In their absence, there is a presence. They wrote to me, they wrote to us, they wrote to the world. And so it is difficult for me to think of my mothers without thinking of these floral patterns and the accompanying texts that they wore around them, the ones they left behind. They are an integral part of my memory of them, of the women they were.

In remembering my mothers, I find myself curious about the khanga beyond my own memories—as body of work that holds collective memory and shapes the narrative of the East African woman. I am specifically interested in the way the khanga is present in the everyday, on photos hanging on walls, in the market, in the memories of our mothers, how it has travelled over time and across geographical boundaries, what it represents in women resistance against speech prohibitions now and then, and yet so absent in the images, the stories through which we remember ourselves, perhaps considered too unconventional an archive to matter. And how, in the absence of the archives of women, patriarchal imaginations continue to populate the way we remember, to embed themselves in our conceptions of the past.

In Kenya, Rungu ya Nyayo (Moi’s club) becomes the symbol of a political ideology widely taught in schools. On a visit to Kenya in early 2015, Tanzania’s then president Jakaya Kikwete’s name is memorialised on a road on the account of his friendship with President Uhuru Kenyatta, a decision that is reached at by the city council without much deliberation. Months after, a lengthy county assembly debate is required to decide on whether to honour Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai by renaming a road after her, four years after her death. On entry into the Dar es Saalam National Archives, Julius Nyerere’s cars greet you. These patriarchal imaginations are still privileged in the way a city like Nairobi remembers its past through its monuments.

And so one wonders where the feminine in East African collective memory is. Why do women’s rituals that have shaped families and defined a cultural memory disappear from the archives?

And so in thinking about this, I find myself tracing this memory of the khanga by looking at late 19th Century images of Zanzibar and Tanzanian women. Most of these images are part of a larger imperial iconography of the Indian Ocean, some which were taken by missionaries and others produced for postcards meant for a European market that was interested in the “exotic” experience of Africa. Because of the white male gaze prejudices, I find it a risky undertaking to depend on these images as reliable relics of memory. But there is something eurhythmic about the images and the memories of my mothers that I am interested in.

On a first look, the women in the images appear a little too docile. But there is something of the fabrics they wear, something of what they were then and what they are later to become that contradicts this docility. And so in these images, I see the sensibilities of the khanga, I see a narrative of a woman taking shape: a woman who wants to be heard, to assert herself.

The first image I encounter is one that embodies post-slavery anxieties for the Zanzibar woman. Even though not much detail is provided on the exact year the image was taken or the photographer’s details, historians place it in the years following the abolition of Arab slave trade in 1897after Zanzibar became a British Protectorate.

Image 1

In this image, the presence of the fabric these women wear is felt, not just as an accessory to a photograph, but as an integral part of it. It is something that recurs in the photographs of post-slavery Zanzibar, where the fabric too becomes a subject, needing the attention of the photographer, asking to say something. In this particular image, there is a clear distinction in the fabrics these women are wearing. The woman on the left wears a plain garment that calls no attention to itself, one formerly worn by slaves and commonly known as Amerikani. The woman on the right wears what is believed to have been the first designs of the khanga with borders and patterns worn by the born-free Swahili. At the time of this image, there was a desire among the non-Swahili ex-slaves to integrate, to be seen as different, to distance themselves from their former roles as slaves. And so they learned the Swahili ways—adopting the language, the Islam religion and most importantly, the ways of the khanga.

As I look at this image of the two women distinguished by the patterns or the lack of on the fabrics they wear, I wonder about the day they walked into the studio. I am more curious about the woman wearing the former slave attire, about her willingness to be seen how others refuse to be seen—as a slave.

In this desire for ex-slaves to sanctify their image, to assert themselves, a lot of images emerge towards the turn of the century. What better way to be seen, to proclaim oneself than through a photograph? Abolition of slavery had opened up certain interests such as photography to ex-slaves, and so they flocked photo studios, some for their own uses and others posing for postcards. Even in the images taken for European touristic consumption, there is a poise that accompanies them as if the women are demanding to be seen in the way they want, in the way they themselves choose.

Most of these images capturing this post slavery anxiety are exhibited online by Erin Haney as part of a collection, Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean. From image to image, the women drape themselves in the different patterns of the khanga. The Sultan’s wives and the concubines smile and pose, asserting themselves as they have always done before. But for the ex-slaves, this is a celebration of a freedom, reclaiming a space that was previously denied to them. They are asking the world to see them.

In most of these early images, khanga aphorisms which became a key element in the East African woman narrative in the subsequent years remain absent. The images only have borders and an iconography that borrows from the social, the political and the religious of the time. Still, there is pride in the khanga, in what it represents; freedom, emancipation.

But what was this freedom for women when the society was very much patriarchal and they still had to answer to another master? What was this freedom when women’s speech was much abhorred? What was this freedom when women were often silenced, in the false accusation that their speech was trivial? Professor Wambui Mwangi’s essay, "Silence is a Woman" comes to mind here. Even though written many years later, it eloquently explores these gendered prescriptions of speech.

The natural condition of a woman is to dwell in silence, to persevere mutely, and to communicate speechlessly. Silence becomes a woman. Silence is what a woman, in be-coming a woman, becomes. Silence is becoming in a woman because silence is the be-coming of a woman. A woman is silent. The presence of a woman is the presence of silence. Silence is a woman.

When one considers such prohibitions, one sees the importance of the khanga as a medium of communication, as a resistance to these instructions of speech for women now and then. As the khanga became popular, the womenfolk turned to it not just as consumers but also as producers. Lacking a medium of expression, they would coin short and clever texts, sometimes borrowed from popular taarab music. Through these aphorisms first printed in Arabic and later in Kiswahili, women spoke to each other, of each other and to the world. They returned the gaze to a world that was looking and seeing them not in the way they wanted to be seen. In the khanga there was a space for speech that delved into places of prohibition—expressing love, anger, desire, etc.

In the years that follow, the khanga travels from Zanzibar and what is now mainland Tanzania to Kenya, Uganda, to Madagascar, to then Zaire. And it travels with its own sensibilities. In gifting someone a khanga, or wearing it in their presence, a message arrives where it is intended. To a cheating lover, the khanga communicates subliminally that she knows, she knows. To the jealous friend, the khanga boasts, and to god, it prays. Where she goes, the message goes. A message in motion:

Umejuaje nimefanikiwa kama si umbea? – How do you know I am blessed if not by gossip?
Mtanena, mtachoka – Speak all you want. Soon, you will tire.

As I think of these prohibitions of speech, I consider another image of a woman who drapes a khanga over herself and looks away from the camera.

This image on a postcard taken by Coutinho Brothers who photographed Zanzibar at the turn of the century is for me the most important of the many. It suggests something of a silent pushback, the saying something without saying it, the memories I have of my mothers and their khangas. The first thing I notice on the image is the woman’s looking away. She is a subservient subject, but there is a complexity in her looking away. To one who is familiar with the texts on khangas, and one who does not know when the image was taken, there is a curiosity on what the fabric might be saying underneath the folded edges. What are the things that she could say that she cannot say, not just at the moment of this photograph, but before and after presence of the camera?

There are other memories of my mother:

There are memories of women draped in matching khangas, meeting in my mother’s house. The khangas they wear carry the same message, the same motif. With this khanga, perhaps not just to the one who watches, but also to each other, they communicate a message of sisterhood. We are the message we wear. Within this space, they shared intimate secrets, they laughed, and they drank tea. Here, they created space that was safe, impenetrable, a space that belonged only to them. At the centre of all this was the khanga, a piece of fabric with a motif and words on it. It is worth considering that the khanga was worn in matching pairs, suggesting something to and beyond the binary of wearing it—something of unionising, a togetherness.

These memories point me to the recurring image of a woman sitting between the thighs of another, having her hair combed and braided. It is an image from the International Mission Photography which is archived by the University of South California and dated between the years 1908 to 1912.

Image 3

In this one of many images, I see love between women. I see tenderness. I see an intimacy between women. I see women showing up for each other.

This image brings to mind the idea of weaving. A feminist collective that adopts the name Weaving Kenya is perhaps the very embodiment of this image. The collective is grounded by the concept of weaving: sharing, shaping, showing up for each other, returning the gaze that is often looking loudly and asking for silence in return. In a conversation published in Feminist Africa, they define themselves as a virtual round-table that revisits the ideas of belonging and identity, that is interested in seeing what happens when women take their own lives, experiences, and memories seriously as a mode of being-in-the world. As these women call to each other, the khanga remains present. They wear it in their performances; they invoke the power in it.

They remind us that these memories of us, of our mothers matter. They call us to look at the khanga and to see it as a necessary archive. In these early images of the Zanzibar woman, the khanga is present. In the later images of the East African woman, the khanga is present. It is present today in the everyday of women’s lives. It is present in the collective memory of women. In today’s society where rage is still frowned upon, where women’s imagination is not cultivated, the khanga becomes a place for this imagination: a place for rage, a place to contest social norms. It opens the channels for women to express themselves, to clap back, to be heard, to love, to laugh, to pray, to return a gaze to the world. It becomes to a woman whatever she wants it to be: a voice that she wears around her, a message to the world, poetry, a shield. The khanga holds her with tenderness.

But where is it in the national archives? Where do these memories of my mothers exist beyond the personal memories I have of them? Where are they in the history-making of East Africa?

In the existing archives, the participation of women in the advent and the poesy of the khanga disappear. Women, who first borrowed the design from Portuguese handkerchiefs, who were coining these aphorisms for merchants, who made the first patterns by extracting dye from henna and mdaa trees, who mixed the paste and made patterns on plain fabrics remain unnamed.

In the same manner, the memories of my mothers begin to fade with the wear and tear of these inherited fabrics. In my attempts to replace some of these khangas from more contemporary versions, it occurs to me that nothing can replace the khanga that knew your mother’s waist and shoulders, one that knew her pain and her restlessness. And so I yearn for something, and archive that legitimises these inherited experiences.

I borrow from Nyandiko Sanya and Namatsi Lutomia who, in a collaborative piece for Feminist Africa, call for reimagining of the archive in a way that encompasses the idiosyncratic too, a way that privileges the narratives of women, a way that will allow us to look at the khanga as an archive of women narratives too. The archive, they write, is vast, exhaustive, dynamic, partly inaccessible, unsorted and, most importantly, it includes narratives of a broad spectrum of the lives and experiences of African women and men.

The khanga is part of this archive. It was present then. It is present now. It asks us to see it.


Photo Credits:
Image 1: Available in the public domain. See more
Image 2: (c) National Museum of African Art/Smithsonian Institution. Used with permission
Image 3: (c) National Library of Scotland.