Khangas are colorfully printed swaths of cloth, often with Swahili proverbs written on them, that women here use for almost everything you could possibly think of. I have endeavored to think of five of those uses, and set them down here for your perusal.
FIVE WAYS YOU CAN USE A KHANGA
By holding the khanga hot-dog-style, folding one end over a little, holding it to your waist, and wrapping and tucking, you can create a lovely skirt of any length you please. The traditional style is long, but if you want it mid-calf, fold it hot-dog style about a fourth of the way up. Above the knee? Fold it in half hot-dog style before wrapping it. Want a miniskirt? Fold it in fourths, and tie the ends. To complete the look, wrap the khanga around your head, putting one end on your shoulder, folding it over your head and in front of your neck, and throwing the end back over the same shoulder. This works great for keeping the rain off.
You can also use it as an apron, a halter dress, or even have it tailored into a real dress. (Someday!) The possibilities are endless!
It is also possible to use a khanga as a sort of bag or sack. A common way of carrying babies here is to have them straddle someone’s back, then tie a khanga around them such that the ends meet over one shoulder and under the other armpit, and are tied once in the front, above the chest.
If you would prefer to use the khanga as a handbag, put whatever thing you want to carry in the middle and then twist up the long ends and tie them together. If a purse is what you’re after, you can wear it as a skirt and tie up your change in the end that you tuck into the skirt.
Or, if you’re like Lizzy and want to spider-proof your reed basket full of clothes, simply put all your clothes in the khanga, put the khanga in the basket, and tie the ends of the khanga together. This is probably even proof against scorpions, which is good news, because I definitely killed one over by the choo (toilet) last night with our squeegee mop.
3) Home Furnishings
If you’re more interested in domestic uses for the common khanga, never fear. During the worst excesses of the rainy season, I used mine as a blanket. It was mainly useful when the temperature dropped precipitously at 3:30 am, which it did every night for a week. Kate uses her khanga as curtains, which doesn’t stop our neighbors from yelling through them or trying to hold conversations with us through them, but they help provide the illusion of privacy. Also, they’re much prettier, lighter, and cleaner than the curtains that came with the house, so I’m thinking about replacing mine, possibly cut into strips to take advantage of the sectioned and barred windows here.
Over in Bombo Majimoto they’ve even hung khangas on the walls! It actually looks really nice, even though the khanga that has pride of place is an Obama khanga, which is the most delightfully tacky of all khangas. (Digression: I will try to bring back an Obama khanga, but if I can’t, here is what it looks like: it’s a sort of lavender color, with Obama’s smiling face in the center, flanked by off-color, and somewhat off-model, maps of Africa on either side. The motto is “Hongera Obama” – “Congratulations Obama”.)
You can also use khangas as a tablecloth (although no one here does it) or old ones as rags (which everyone here does.) There’s probably a million other home furnishing uses I haven’t thought of, but let’s move on to…
Khangas can also be used to carry things on one’s head. You make a sort of jelly roll out of it, place the jelly roll on your head, and then put your bucket of whatever on top of that. The khanga serves as padding and weight distribution.
In a pinch, you can use a khanga as a towel (this works better with old ones, that have been washed until they’re soft- the newer ones are treated with something that I infer is called ‘Angel Wax’ that makes them slightly waterproof) or kick back with it on the beach.
Khangas are a great way to learn Swahili proverbs, provided you have a dictionary and grammar book handy. They’re actually really hard to translate on the fly, though, perhaps because proverbs are naturally pithy, as is Swahili, and thus there’s a lot packed into each phrase. Sometimes the design on the khanga will give you a clue as to context- or at least, I have to assume that a khanga with a rooster design is also saying something about a rooster.
…AND ONE YOU CAN’T
I would not recommend using your khanga as a hammock. They’re tough, but they’re not that tough.