I have to admit it right out front. Hunting for Tanzanian fabrics was not my main reason for coming to Africa. Instead, my husband and I were there with some friends to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at almost 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters.
However, being an avid fabric hunter, with the little time I had, I did what I could and secure the most important samples of Tanzanian fabrics that I could find.
I was lucky enough to find the three types I had in mind. The Masai Shúkà, the Khanga with the written messages and the Kitenge. I knew about these fabrics from my previous visit to Africa. I lived in Cameroun, West Africa for two years a long, long time ago.
Coming to Tanzania has been on my bucket list even before “a bucket list” was a thing.
Tanzania lies right under the Equator on the central east part of the African continent and shares borders with 8 countries: Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Ruanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Malawi.
It's the backdrop for inspiration for the movie “The Lion King” and the birthplace of the phrase Hakuna Matata! which literally means Don't worry.
And worry you mustn't because this is the place where people smile freely and the scenery grounds you to the earth.
It is wrong to say that a piece of fabric belongs only to a specific country in Africa but rather it is much more accurate to say that it belongs to a region or Tribe.
The geographical demarcation given today to countries did not exist until the 1500s with the colonization of Africa. Before then, people were divided by geographical regions and tribes. Mountains, rivers, valleys, and deserts would make a natural barrier to different tribes. Take as an example the Maasai people or tribe.
The Maasai are found in Kenya and Tanzania and have a very distinctive way of dressing. Most Masai men wear the color red because it is believed it will scare the lions. This would appear to be a valid concern even today given the wild and beautiful nature of the place.
So here are the fabrics I found:
The Shúkà is a cloth wrapped around the body, normally in red or blue plain, pattern(plaid) or with flowers. It is worn to protect the Masai from the harsh sun rays.
The Khanga is a piece of cloth with written messages of very lightweight cotton about 1.5 meters in length by 1 meter in width. It usually has a border with a central design and a written message. It is worn by both men and women. The messages are normally common sayings passed down from generation to generation. Depending on the occasion, you will purchase the fabric with the message you want to wear or give.
Some Examples Of Traditional Writings
Fadhila za punda ni mateke = The way a donkey expresses gratitude is by giving someone a bunch of kicks. We might know this saying as “No good deed goes unpunished”.
On the picture below: Tuliza Roho Yangu = Ask my spirit
Subira Yako ni ibada kwa mungu= Your submission is worship to God.
The Kitenge is not only part of the many Tanzanian fabrics but it is also a significant part of West and East African textile industry. It is the most popular piece of cloth worn by women for many occasions and in many ways such as baby slings, head scarfs, and sarongs.
The Kitenge is printed the same way as the Southeast Asian Batik technique which I have shared with you on my last trip to Solo and Bali, Indonesia.
The use of wax is easily identified in the fabric, giving it a stylized appearance of cracked glass. The print is almost identical on both sides.
Before I traveled to Africa I did some research into this traditional garment and the customs surrounding it. I found this lovely video made by Tanzanian girls explaining what is and how to wear the Kitenge and Kanga fabrics. I prefer to share this video since they can explain much better than I could on how to use these Tanzanian fabrics.
I have many different plans for my new fabrics and I hope you can stay tuned to see what I can come up with…
It is hard for me to decide which one I love the most since I am a fabric lover and they are all gorgeous and full of culture.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
I had no idea what lack of oxygen and altitude sickness really meant until I experienced it. No amount of reading and video watching could have possibly prepared me for what I would experience until I put my boots on and strapped on my crampons at midnight on my way to the summit.
I can still remember my hands shaking as I am knotting my boots and the slight tinge of panic rising in my chest. I knew I had to control this and I quickly tried to stamp it out like a fire.
Panic will do you in on the mountain, followed closely by fear and lack of proper attire. To my surprise fitness and age take a step back.
Of course, you need to be in reasonably good shape and able to be on your feet all day and climb say a 30 story building while you have a bad cold. Because that's what it is going to feel like for whatever amount of time you choose to go.
Why do it at all? Everyone has many reasons to come to Kilimanjaro, mine is just a childhood dream.
I was nine years old when my father came home with an illustrated encyclopedia, It had hand drawings illustrations of rivers, mountains, and cities. The encyclopedia was mostly about geography and history. Among those pages, I first saw Mount Kilimanjaro, with the snow-white summit and the elephants grazing at the bottom.
Although I did not see any elephants grazing, I did manage to climb the Mountain, all 19,341 ft (5,895 meters) of it. It was not easy, in fact, I think it was the hardest thing I have done so far in my life.
I bet it isn't the first time you heard or read someone climbing a mountain for a dream or inspiration. In fact, this is a practice that goes back to the time of the ancients or perhaps even further. What possesses us to push our bodies to the very edge of our limits?
The worst part for me was that once I reached the summit I lost my vision within a minute of being there, and could not see the landscape nor the ground one meter in front of me (a severe form of altitude sickness). I could not help but wonder what it all meant? Eight days on the mountain to come this high and not being able to see enjoy the summit at all? I can't help but wonder about those famous words by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”
These words are more commonly known as “it is the journey, not the destination”.
It has been a humbling experience, but I think I can say I left my fears at the top of that mountain.
What fear might you ask? My biggest fear is to make YouTube videos, ridiculous I know.
I am happy to report that once off the mountain I recovered my vision, and 24 hours later it was as if it never happened.
It's funny how once you go through a challenge your mind seems to only remember the good parts of the experience and if you ask me today would you do it again? I have to say Maybe… it would depend on the people in the group.
I was lucky enough to climb with an exceptional group of hard-working and successful people, who were really easy to get along with.
The experience will forever be left in my mind as a reminder to never complain about any challenge in my life.
I hope you found my choices of fabric and my story interesting. What would you make with these fabrics? I'd really like to hear from you in the comments below.
Until next time when I will be telling you about meeting the owner of the Bernina company and his family. Keep your scissors sharp and happy sewing!