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  • East African women wear kangas in every imaginable way and in every imaginable situation. Kangas come in pairs, one kanga is two identical rectangular pieces of cloth with a centre theme, a border and a printed message. One piece is big enough to wear as a wrap-around long skirt, or wrapped under the arms, as an over-the knee dress. Kangas can also be used as headscarves, headwraps, baby carriers, packaging, decoration, anything.

    Each kanga has a message printed to it. Sometimes the messages are just general proverbs or state "God is great", but they can also be very personal messages. Kangas can be given as gifts, in which case the message is also very important, to make sure the gift doesn't unintentionally turn into an insult.

    I bought this kanga to give to my mother. The proverb, "Mama ni Mama anaye mtupa hana mana" literally means "Mother is mother, who throws her away has no meaning". Swahili proverbs can have multiple meanings and layers, and a Tanzanian friend spend some time explaning this to me:

    Your mother is your mother, regardless of who she is and what she does, and you should cherish her. If you disregard her, you yourself are worthless. Or, since you have come from your mother, if you reject her you are rejecting yourself.

    Motherhood is one of common themes in kangas. When a women becomes a mother, she will no longer be called by her own name, but with "mama" and the oldest child's name. In this culture, I am not "Kristiina" but "Mama Irene" after my daughter. So when a mother names her child, she essentially chooses her own name.

    I can identify with that loss of identity. When my daughter was born, for quite some time I felt I was no longer primarily myself, but her mother. After the very intense first years that feeling eased out and I found myself again. Perhaps African mothers do not mind losing their identity to motherhood? Or perhaps a name is just a name, and what other people call you does not define who you are.
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