Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Article excerpt

"The Manyuema are far more beautiful than either the bond or free of Zanzibar. I overhear the remark often, 'If we had Manyuema wives what beautiful children we should beget.'"1


Conceptions of the desirability of elite Manyema women probably differed greatly among men and women of different statuses and ethnicities in the late nineteenth century. In this article I argue that to Swahili women on the coast, the clothing associated with the fashion repertoire of elite Manyema women also symbolized the desirability of their independence and power, and that elite Manyema women's public presentations of themselves signified a power and independence that both men and women found attractive, albeit for very different reasons. Among Swahili women in the Swahili entrepôts of the hinterland, and on the Swahili Coast and in Zanzibar, Manyema women and their fashions became intricately tied to, and invested in, what began as an elaborately patterned rectangular piece of cloth and eventually developed into the iconic cloth we now know as the kanga. This article builds on the work of Fair, Byfield, and Allman and examines the advent of the kanga in an entirely new light.2 Drawing from Swahili texts and the accounts of explorers, travelers, and missionaries, I argue that the kanga came to symbolize the power of an African community with origins in Central Africa and embody notions of Manyema ethnicity. The creation of the kanga is intricately tied to the negotiation of a new ethnicity: an ethnicity that emerged after Zanzibari traders expanded their frontier into the Central African area northwest of Ujiji, destroying existing communities in the process. As the Zanzibar! established their authority with guns and other weapons, they murdered many adult men and enslaved women and children. Despite the devastation of their communities, elements of the indigenous groups moved east across Lake Tanganyika where they forged a new identity as Manyema.

Most historical writing on the central route of the East African ivory and slave trade mentions the use of cloth in bargaining for passage through different communities along the caravan path and in the markets of Ujiji, Uvira, and other towns with large market exchanges. However, little attention has been paid to the intersection of the ivory and slave trade caravans and the ramifications of the introduction of these new types of cloths into the Zanzibari entrepôts and neighboring African communities. The central route of the East African slave trade connected the peoples of Central Africa to the Swahili Coast and Zanzibar, and forever altered fashion and notions of female sexuality and behavior in Zanzibar and East Africa. While Fair has demonstrated the ways that women by the turn of the twentieth century had made Zanzibar "the Paris of East Africa," we do not know exactly what sparked local entrepreneurs' interest in making kangas or why Swahili women almost immediately coveted and desired to procure kangas.3 What was the impetus that led to this great interest? In this article I present yet another layer to the story of the emergence of the kanga at the time of the abolition of the slave trade in Zanzibar. Indian merchants successfully marketed the kanga to a newly emerging clientele of former slaves who, as free women and men, were able to purchase items that could help them claim a new, free identity. But why was it the kanga that became the object of desire, and not some other item of clothing or jewelry? What did the kanga promise or provide that other things did not? I argue here that the kanga emerged in the context of the ivory and slave trade: it emerged from Manyema women's participation in the caravans and their performance of what it meant to be an elite Manyema woman as they traveled from the area northeast of Lake Tanganyika, across the central route of the East African slave route, into Zanzibar and back again.

Connections: Central Africa, Ujiji, Zanzibar

In 1857, Zanzibari women favored red and blue kisitu: a length of stained cotton cloth wrapped tightly around the breast that extended to the feet. …

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