All THOSE Words for Skirt? II
Bill Long 9/5/08
Some African Traditional Garments
The garments I would like to understand here are the lamba, kikoi, kitenge, capulana and khang/kanga. If time permits, I might also want to mention the South Asian lungi. In another essay I looked at the lappa, which is a Hausa (Nigeria) word for a woman's shawl or skirt. I think I will conclude with a few humorous comments about skirts and wind.
Beginning with Lamba
We immeidately have to pick our steps carefully when we realize that Lamba is one of the Bantu tribes which historically have lived in Northern Zambia and Zaire, while lamba, small case, is "a large cloak worn by the natives of Madagascar." From 1880: "The specially national article of dress is the lamba, a piece of cloth about three yards long and two wide." This web site tells us that the lamba consists of two matching pieces of fabric for a woman: one around the waist or chest and one around the head or shoulders. The lamba is sometimes worn by men in rural areas, but normally is worn by women.
Here is an article that describes how the lamba cloth can be used as gifts to ancestors in Madagascar. Apparently the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC had a 2002 exhibit on the "textile arts of Madagascar" which depict the "beautiful handmade lamba cloths of Madagascar." As the article tells us, Madagascar has 13 million people from Africa, Arabia and India, and these constitute 18 tribes. The lamba, used by many people, consists of "squares of woven and designed cloth...made from different materials such as cotton, silk, tree bark and palm tree leaves (raffia)." Then leaves are woven into squares, dyed, embroidered and appliqued with geometric designs. Then they are sewn together to make a larger piece of cloth.
Lamba, given as a gift, symbolizes friendship. A death, among the Malagasy, is seen as a state enabling a person to draw nearer to God. The dead are referred to as "ancestors or razana" and are highly regarded and considered to be active in the lives of the living. Thus, the razana are given elaborate attention and are considered the spiritual center of the family. Lamba cloths are offerend them as a gesture of gratitude and hope. I had never heard the following:
"A unique custom exists to honor and pay respect to the razana where the bodies are taken out of the tombs. The tombs and bodies are cleaned. This day is a festival among the Madagascar people in which they cook the best foods, sing and dance. Quite interesting is when the bodies of the family are laid out on the ground to participate and enjoy the festival. This festival is called famadihana. The old lamba cloth which was given to the ancestors before is taken off and a new one put on, as a gift to the razana during this festival."
I am glad to learn a little about famadihana. The longer I live, the more I realize that other cultures "got it right" in a number of areas. The chief way that Malagasy culture got this right is the recognition that regular attention to and focus on the ancestors gives one an orientation, protection and guidance for today. Protestants generally want to stamp out this kind of practice, though Catholics, realizing the importance of local and historic ritual, don't mind so much..
We see completely now how characterizing all these garments as "sarongs" ignores more than it understands. Three garments from East and Northeast Africa are the kikoi, khanga/kanga, and kitenge. This web site gives both the history and current use of the khanga. Though the origin of the khanga is disputed (a Portuguese origin in Zanzibar; an Indian origin; or a native invention), most think they originated in handkerchiefs that could be sewn together to make a piece of cloth large enough to be worn around the body. The cloths were called khangas, the Swahili word for "guinea fowl," because the bright colors reminded people of those birds. What is unique about the khanga is that these (now) 5' X 3' garments/coverings have Swahili proverbs written on the bottom of them. US Peace Corps workers in East Africa have adopted their own khanga with a dove on it, as their symbol. At the bottom is the phrase "Watu Wa Amani," which means "People of Peace." Here is a long web article on the khanga, which takes pains to point out the differences between it and the kitenge, for example.
The OED defines the kitenge as "In East AFrica, a fabric, usu. of cotton and printed in various colors and designs with distinctive borders, used esp. for women's clothing." But men wear them, and kintenge shirts are advertised all over the Net. This cute little story on "choosing a new kitenge" for a non-African boy who had been living in Africa with his family illustrates one of my major points about words: that each word, however unfamiliar to us, is an easy word for someone in the world and, in this case, children. I am sure that each day the child put on his kitenge he was conscious of what it was called. Probably by the age of three he could say the word; it became as real to him as "jeans" to us. Only, we generally don't know the word.
Several more essays on "wrap around" garments could be written, though this will suffice for me here. I can't help closing this essay however with a rumination. Recall that in my earlier essays we have about eight words for desert winds: sirocco, harmattan, ghibli, etc. Each of the words originates out of a different country. So it is with these wrap-around garments. There are so many different ones, and each comes from its own little corner of the earth. But then, a wicked thought occurred to me. When I combine the notions of wind and wrap-around garments, for some reason the poster of Marilyn Monroe with the skirt uplifted by a blast of wind/air comes to mind. And, my mind began to wonder. What would it be like for a person from Madagascar to travel to Tunisia in a lamba only to have the ghibli blow up the skirt? Would it be the same if a person from Tahiti was wearing her pereu and went to Egypt and was confronted by the khamsin? It might cause the same shared experience of embarrassment; I don't think we need too many words to capture that idea.
That's enough to get us started; you can pick up from here...