Kanga Kiswahili. Traditional Design and Motto’s in Lamu’s Leso

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Kanga or Leso are sheets that are sold in pairs, they have colourful decoration and a proverb printed on the bottom. The proverb makes the leso an attractive present for weddings or other occations. Besides that, wearing a leso with a particular text is a way of communicating. Leso are only worn by women. Though the fact that they are always sold in pairs and for wedding occasions suggests that men might use a leso in the home as a bedsheet. Leso tradition goes back a long way. It is said to be inspired by Portuguese handkerchiefs. Leso is also Swahili for a kind of bird. One of the most conspicuous design motive is the spot. So wearing leso’s you might look just like this bird with it’s spotted feathers.

Textile for the Lamu market is not fabricated in Lamu itself. Leso and Kanga and other textiles are designed in Mombasa, Tanzania and even India, a special connection exists with the village of Jetpur, Gujarat as we see in the short movie ‘Common threads: fabric from India for Africa'(2018) by scholar Renu Modi.

This book is still to be designed. The budget will be used for doing research on Lamu leso and photographing a lot of examples, designing it with the help of Lamu artists and finally printing the book by Lamu printshops. The book will show the richness of the variety in style design and words. It will be one in a series on books researched and designed in Lamu by Lamu artists on subjects they consider relevant. The idea came up at the LMYS 2018 symposium. Although Lamu has a lot of beautiful traditions: vidaka- interior design, the lamu doors, painting under glass to name but a few, our informed audience couldn’t think of any titles on their traditional crafts that we could purchase.

By the way: If this item makes you think of existing books or other material that could be purchased by LMYS, we invite you to inform us about titles or movies and where they can be obtained!

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