MOST FROM THE COAST !
NEWS SERVICE REPORTS FROM THE
Author Sultan Somjee
[inset]. 'Kangas' drying on a washing line [center]
in Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Woman in 'Kanga'
[right] from Siyu township on the Pate Island in
Crossings' highlights 'Kanga' magic in East Africa
Reading ‘Home Between
Crossings’, former Kenyan journalist Cyprian Fernandes*
writes that he "was simply blown away" by Sultan Somjee’s second
It is 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.
a feminine art form that women of the coast have
carried on their bodies for generations.
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
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
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
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
Crossings’ is the second book from Sultan Somjee
(author of 'Bead Bai', 2012). It is published
by CreateSpace, December 2014 and is available on
Amazon @ US $ 21.50.
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
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
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
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
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
It is 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
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:
The 'Kanga' (or 'khanga';
from the old Bantu (Kiswahili) verb
ku-kanga, to wrap or close), is a
colourful garment similar to 'kitenge',
worn by women and occasionally by men
throughout the African Great Lakes
It is a piece of printed
cotton fabric, about 1.5 m by 1 m, often
with a border along all four sides
(called 'pindo' in Swahili), and
a central part ('mji') which
differs in design from the borders.
Messages are often in the form of
riddles or proverbs. Some examples:
Greed is never useful
Mkipendana mambo huwa sawa:
Everything is all right if you
love each other
Japo sipati tamaa sikati:
Even though I have nothing, I
have not given up my desire to get
what I want
Wazazi ni dhahabu kuwatunza
Parents are gold; to take care of
them is a blessing
Sisi sote abiria dereva ni
We are all passengers, God is the
Fimbo La Mnyonge Halina
Might is right
tuanataka, usawa, amani, maendelo:
We (women) want equality, peace,
Naogopa simba na meno yake
siogopi mtu kwa maneno yake:
I’m afraid of a lion with its
strong teeth but not a man with his
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 'Kanga's, 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 'Kanga'
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.
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
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
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
Cyprian Fernandes is a former Nation Chief
Reporter and veteran investigative journalist who
currently lives in Sydney Australia.
**Chakacha is a
traditional music and dance style (an ngoma) of the
Swahili people of coastal Kenya and Tanzania, originally
associated with weddings and performed and watched by women.
In the late 20th century, musical groups such as Mombasa
Roots, Safari Sound Band and Them Mushrooms
have adapted this style to 'afropop' music.
Basically, the women are dressed in very light transparent
clothing and have a belt around their waists for ease of
Tanzanian ladies, especially around the coastal areas are
very good at this dance.
It is also somewhat associated with 'Taarab', another
type of music style adapted in the coast and mainly performed by
The hip-swaying dance movements of 'Chakacha' bear
some resemblance with both Congolese soukous dances and
Middle Eastern belly dances.
Story of murder threat for Kenya journalist published after
Sultan Somjee: 'Bead Bai', historical novel about Ismailis
Sultan Somjee: I think of my new novel as an 'ethnographic
Journalist Cyprian Fernandes: Travelling a lifetime through
'Khanga' on display at a
wholesale market in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Swahili
message across the center section may translate into
English as: "Do not
interfere, or add, to something that does not concern
[However, another 'Mwalimu'
'If the last word is spelt incorrectly, which I
assume, then it should read as 'yasokuhusu'. So,
the meaning is: "Do not get involved in matters that
do not concern you". - Leso proverbs are very deep'.]
you read it first at coastweek.com
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