Magic of the kanga amidst woes of Kenya
Home Between Crossings
Sultan Somjee (author of Bead Bai, 2012)
Published by CreateSpace, December 2014
Available on Amazon US $ 21.50
Reading ‘Home Between Crossings’, former Kenyan journalist CYPRIAN FERNANDES writes that he “was simply blown away” by Sultan Somjee’s second book. It’s not only a veritable treasure trove of Asian history, including the mass exodus of 1968, but also a vault full of hypnotic literary gems, among them is the humble looking African cloth called the kanga. The kanga is the Swahili wrap-around that displays not only wisdom in one line sayings but also memories. It’s a feminine art form that women of the coast have carried on their bodies for generations.
Sultan Somjee worked as an ethnographer in Kenya. In the process, he collected material culture, staged exhibitions and listened to stories that emerged from artefacts. He has published two guide books: Material Culture of Kenya and Stories from Things. He is also the author of the stunning Bead Bai. He lives in British Columbia and teaches writing stories from things.
In Home Between Crossings, a work of fiction set from the earliest signals of a country marching towards independence, the emergence of the Kenya Land Freedom Army demonised as the evil Mau Mau by the colonial government to the end of British rule. That end was also the end of life in Kenya for thousands of Asians leaving for the freezing gloom of the unknown UK, Canada and Europe. For the elderly it was particularly difficult.
The book begins with Mother Earth pregnant with drought. The suffering of the rural folk is not a good omen. Their death is imminent and it will be a boon to the vultures. The metaphor for the greed of the politicians, misrule and corruption in Kenya today is captured in lyrical lines:
The great drought of Ol-ameyu eats the flesh of the land like a disease that eats the body … Yet, another gang of these avian scavengers sit motionless on whittled Ol-debbei, their scrawny necks loop like ropes as they peer over sun-bleached zebra bones, speckled over the dry bed of the River Athi…The white calf gulps down chocolate water, greedily, ceaselessly, unaware of the preying eyes of the scavenger awaiting its collapse. The earth’s thirst sears … I see the old woman crouching down to sit, her chin falling to her chest and eyes cast down. The vulture hop-flies, folds its wings and stays behind her now sitting in the shadow of the riparian acacia.
In this setting, Somjee tells the story a Khoja mother, and by extension, the Khoja community and the broader Asian society made up of many such though not exactly the same communities. The stories in Home Between Crossings combine to speak in one voice about the day to day uncertainness and fears of Asians living under a nationalist, corrupt and despotic government of Kenyatta. I know that too well because working as a senior investigative journalist at Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Nation, I knew that was quickly becoming the reality of post-uhuru Kenya. Then, suddenly, one day I had to flee for my life and safety of my wife and children. They said the Asian journalist knew too much, and gave a bullet my name. Like the bullets named Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, Arwings Kodek, JM and others less known who died in prison and torture chambers.
The end for the protagonist storyteller comes with the cruel snapping of the umbilical cord from her birthland. Corporate imperialism, corruption and misrule are sucking Mother Earth dry and people are forced to live in poverty. Somjee describes the contrast between the two faces of Nairobi:
At night, the Kenyatta Conference Centre, international sky-scraping hotels, banks and multinational corporations, all boasting post-colonial development, glow over the squalid workers’ habitats like a conference of fireflies over sewage dumps.
However, there is more. The 631 pages are dotted with multiple literary gems that will fascinate and tantalize the reader, almost as if like a soothing balm over the horrors of the nationalism, political greed, the Asian Exodus, the Mau Mau and the general pangs of not knowing whither the future.
One of these gems in the book that’s dedicated to the author’s his wife, Zera, is set in the beautiful coastal culture of Kenya at a Mombasa family home. It is in Mombasa that the pioneers of exploration, slavers and the British and Omani Arab colonialists first set foot before conquering the hinterland. It’s the almost invisible kanga, the cotton wrap-around worn mainly by women. Usually spun from cotton, it keeps the wearer cool from the raw heat of Mombasa and covered from lascivious eyes.
Indian merchants brought textiles from the handlooms of Gujarat to Mombasa for clothing, and trade but it is not quite known who actually created the first kanga.
The printed patterns and words on the kanga divulge influences of dyes, art and motifs of African heritages and those from around the Ocean, India and even Europe … Today, the repertoire of kanga designs, and words on them called mithali or msemo (Swahili for a proverb or saying) reveal artistic and literary exchanges between oceanic and inland migratory routes and settlements.
And then Somjee adds:
Some designs and phrases are universal, and some are uniquely ethnic, but all have found beauty and meaning in the hearts of the diverse societies that inhabit eastern Africa, where you find women wearing the kanga and telling stories.
In a way, there is a rich and colourful history with an art lesson combined through the pleasures of the eye that spark the reader’s imagination the way legends do.
Here is the real thing about the kanga. Each piece is a library, an archive of living memory. Swahili women have been the keepers of the kanga for generations. Over the past century, the kanga has adorned many foreign bodies ignorant of the true story of the cloth and the feelings in it that reside in the women of the African coast. They do not hear the cloth speaking to them, sing it’s art and the poetry of the Indian Ocean cultures. There is even a deeper meaning of the wrap seated in Swahili memories:
The cloth keeps tender remembrances of their relatives and close friends, mostly women among women. It adorns them, comforts them and has given the women a voice to speak to their ancestral feminine memories, to express and protest what may not always be spoken because of local etiquettes that befit the woman’s family and bearing.
The front cover of the book is adorned with a kanga proverb: Kila ndege huruka na mbawa zake. The sound itself is intriguing if you don’t speak Swahili as would be the pattern in print art that frames the proverb. Somjee explains, Every bird flies on its own wings, as a mithali that is a proverb. Then he goes on to write one and half pages to explain the different contexts the proverb is used “at the particular time in life’s journey.”
Contact over the centuries has meant that Arabic, Indian Ocean and African inland cultures have morphed into one that is unique to Africa. “In fact, the Swahili word mithali comes from the Arabic word mithal meaning an example or a model that can also be a person’s name.” Like the language Swahili and the dance cha ka cha, the kanga evolved from the meeting of oceanic and inland migrations. Indeed, the morphing of Arab-African cultures has been added to by the many races that have graced Kenya’s shores, including the Portuguese, the Persian and not the least being the Indians.
In another place in the book, Grandma Nana, a native of the Kenyan coast who is also known as ‘the Mouth of Mombasa’, because she speaks too much, says:
The kanga was bequeathed to us, the Swahili women of the coast of Africa by our ancestral slave mothers in the households of wealthy Arab royals, merchants and sailors of the Indian Ocean …The cloth carries love in it and sorrows of the hearts. It speaks wisdom in elders’ minds and shows patterns of sea water and migrations. Together, they speak lyrics of cloth art of the Indian Ocean ... I hear it in my body when I wear the kanga when I am sad, and seek joy also when I am happy, and want to show my happiness. Wasikia? To ask do you hear me is to ask, do you feel what I say?
Picture this from Grandma Nana holding up a piece cloth and become one with the kanga as I did:
My mother called this cloth kanga. It’s like a bird from her native Nyika that has grey feathers and white dots. That is how light glimpses in the dark as glimmers of bright dots to the eye. Like stars in night sky. A gathering of kangas, make flock of feathered dots that does not fly, and runs the land.
Reading painted poetic lines like this, I was absolutely lost in the sheer beauty that Somjee unravels strand by strand. In my mind’s eye, I actually heard the kanga sing her song, recite her proverb or take me surfing on her waves whispering sweet nothings into my ear. Growing up in Kenya, I must have seen thousands of kangas everywhere along the Kenyan coast but thought nothing of them at the time other than they were a pretty cool way of dressing for the seaside towns and the sun. What’s more, it made the women and the girls look pretty. Somjee has provided a deep and soulful education into the exquisite uniqueness of the kanga shaking me to wake up from my ignorance of the art of the country where I was born. For the rest of my life, if and when I see a kanga, especially anywhere along the Kenyan coast, I would hope that I would stop and have a chat with the wearer so my kanga education can be renewed and even improved with a personal touch.
I say it again. A kanga is not just a simple piece of cloth. It is a piece of art and history, handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. The thing about the Swahili nation (the mix of coastal Kenya tribes and oceanic cultures) is that they are especially blessed with the song, verse, rhythm and dance. For example, two of Kenya’s great entertainers came from Swahili first language speakers: Fadhili William who recorded the unforgettable anthem like lyrics of Malaika and Sal Davis, Kenya’s first pop star. There have been others such as Adam Salim, and the legendary Freddie Mercury who hailed from Zanzibar once the seat of the Swahili kingdom and a flourishing pluralist culture where some researchers would argue the kanga was born among fashionable ladies. Some musicians were contemporaries of the famed ones, others came after, and they have continued to improve the quality, content and style, making their world class.
However, the humble kanga hovers above everyone else, as bright and as adorned as the heavenly night sky. Sultan Somjee is blessed with an eye to see art, interpret sensitivities of cultures, hear the beauty of the song and do the dance. These make the soul of human nature where most people see the ordinary. You may not believe it, but things that he calls ‘material culture’ do talk to him as if they were living objects, his friends and his community. He sees Kenya afflicted by many woes but the magic of the kanga stays in the midst like a beacon of hope of a pluralist society if only one would step back and think what the cloth speaks for the nation.