Tanzanian Kangas and proverbs, a post by Denise Baynham and Katie Hyde

This Durham LTP project is an exploration of Tanzania’s language, culture and art. Denise Baynham’s 3rd grade students at Club Blvd Humanities Magnet created photographic stories about Swahili and English proverbs and made miniature versions of kangas, the colorful cloths traditionally worn by women in East Africa. The project combines lessons in art, library research, reading, writing, photography, geography, and language.

Denise and I began by talking with her students about Tanzanian geography, culture and language. We looked at a map of Africa and then a map of Tanzania. We found the city of Arusha, Tanzania—a sister city of Durham, North Carolina. I shared some examples of self-portrait pictures and writings made by children in Arusha.

We introduced several Swahili words starting with karibuni (welcome) and asante (thank you). After mentioning the word safari, which means trip/journey, we looked for Mt. Kilimanjaro on the map. Students repeated a few words related to safaris such as Mbuyo (Baobab tree) and tembo (elephant). We also taught a few words associated with school like wanafunzi (students) and watoto (children).

For the next word, kanga, we showed the students pictures corresponding to two meanings of the word—the first picture was of a guinea fowl and the second a colorful cloth, the kind traditionally worn by women. Students recognized the connection between the colorful patterns on the bird and the fabric—which was blue with white polkadots.








Looking at the kangas we’d draped on the classroom’s bookshelves, students noticed their features—a border design, an image or motif in the middle of the rectangular cloth and a Swahili proverb written on the edge. We explained that women wear kangas to the market, men wear them at home, and families wrap their babies in them.

We talked about how kangas, with their written sayings and their motifs, send personal, social, religious or even political messages and are often given as gifts. We asked whether the t-shirts students had on that day expressed any messages and someone answered, pointing to a Carolina (UNC) shirt, “he loves Carolina.” Two girls’ shirts contained other messages—one with its Tinkerbelle design and another that said “Put me in the spotlight.”

We began talking about the meaning of one kanga’s proverb, which translated as “Love is blind.” One student guessed it meant, “you can’t see love, but you can feel love.” Another thought it meant, “you should love blind people.” Students became more curious about the red kanga with black teapots hanging by the window and asked, “what does that one say?” and “does the color matter?”

Students came up with ideas for the symbols they might put on a Kanga, suggesting such things as: a butterfly; God; a snake; an elephant; money; gold; a diamond; a shark; a peacock; a skull; a box with a dog jumping out of it, and so on.

Looking again at the picture of the guinea fowl, and thinking about how it related to the fabric, students saw the bird’s patterns and bright color and said it looked like the bird was wearing a cloth! We mentioned that these birds were known for being sociable, noisy, elegant, and having colorful spots.

These discussions led to other projects. In one, Denise’s students made miniature kangas. Using fruit and vegetables as stamps, students printed their kanga’s border design. In the center of the fabric, they drew a symbol, which at times connected to the proverb they chosen to write along the bottom edge.

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