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African women slaves wore 'khangas' brought from India

A wraparound known as 'khanga' or 'leso' in Kenya was imported from India in the 19th century to drape women slaves in East Africa before they were transported to the Middle East, Xinhua has reported.

world Updated: Jul 23, 2010 12:07 IST

A wraparound known as 'khanga' or 'leso' in Kenya was imported from India in the 19th century to drape women slaves in East Africa before they were transported to the Middle East, Xinhua has reported.

Interestingly, the attire is not worn in India, where it is being made, because of the enduring stigma of its close association with slave women.

In the 1980s, Kenyan women prided themselves on wearing the attire, as it made a respectable fashion statement, when they would strut around elegantly wrapped in it.

Though it no longer hogs the attention, African women who are strongly attached to their culture, must wear a khanga at some point, mainly during important social gatherings.

So how did this legendary piece of clothing come to influence African fashion for so long?

Incredibly, the origin of the khanga was in the nefarious slave trade in the 19th century, when women slaves had to be "adequately" clothed before being transported to the Middle East. Because of the local religious obligations, many considered the khanga a cloth befitting the occasion.

Traders from Gujarat who had been visiting the East African coast for centuries, cleverly noted this and responded to the market demand by supplying a black cloth that was worn by slaves and poor women.

Patterns chiseled into cassava and sweet potatoes were imprinted on to the cloth that became the hallmark of khanga.

Emancipated women slaves from the East African coast, Zanzibar and other regions, demanded the ever-changing designs, setting in motion the trends that would make khanga a high-fashion item in the 20th century.

After the socialist revolution in Zanzibar, there was a lull in khanga trade, but only briefly. Soon, entrepreneurs from India were manufacturing the garments and exporting them to Zanzibar and other East African countries.

Before India became the leader in the industry, most machine-made khangas came from Europe and China. In Kenya, there is only one manufacturing plant, while there are five in Tanzania. The general presentation of the khanga has improved with time. Text messages and proverbs are among its most recent additions.

Seyyid Barghash, who ruled Zanzibar in the early 20th century, banned noble ladies in his court from wearing it, claiming that it reminded him of the "dirty stinking black woman at the slave market".

The khanga has not entirely escaped the onslaught of modernisation, in both its material and message. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester have been used in its production, with political, religious and social messages written on it.

Even portraits of powerful leaders have found their way on to its material. The hard face of Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- the famed Latin American communist revolutionary -- is seen on many fashionable khangas in Nairobi.

Spreading far and wide from its heartland in Zanzibar, the versatile khanga can now be found in Madagascar, the Comoro islands and throughout the Middle East.