It’s 5pm in Jambiani. The magic hour. That idyllic slice of time when the setting sun bathes everything in soft light. It’s the perfect time to take gorgeous photographs. Glowing streetscapes, golden smiles – who needs filters?
Locals on Zanzibar’s southeast coast are winding down for the day, sitting on doorsteps to shoot the breeze, shouting “Jambo!” to volunteers as they pass on their way to Kids Club, an informal hour of play that happens three times a week on the sandy football pitch in the centre of the village. Kids Club is, without question, my favourite gig but today – which just happens to be my thirtieth birthday – I’m doing something different. Along with a handful of other volunteers and our fearless leader Toni, a British project manager for African Impact, I am going to meet the ‘Kanga Ladies.’
With feisty Mama Ramla at the helm, the Kanga Ladies meet several evenings a week at a local nursery school to stitch colourful kangas into skirts, dresses, trousers and bags to sell to tourists. But it’s not all work. They also catch up on each other’s lives, share news and laugh – at everything.
When we enter the schoolroom we outnumber the women. Only three have shown up so far and there are five of us. We bid shikamoo (a respectful hello) to Mama Ramla and greet the other women, who look younger than us, but they’re shy at first and look away, giggling.
We join them, sitting cross-legged on rattan mats on the floor, as Toni breaks the ice with English introductions, encouraging us to exchange names, ages and marital statuses. This last one garners the most interest, and soon stories of engagements and wedding kangas tumble out, and we find ourselves fielding questions about our own love lives.
Many of the women have day jobs as seaweed farmers – laborious work involving hours of planting, tending and harvesting seaweed at low tide during the hottest part of the day. It is then dried, packed and sold on to overseas suppliers, earning seaweed farmers – who are almost exclusively women – just forty to sixty thousand Tanzanian schillings per month (roughly $25-$38 US dollars). On the other hand, a pair of colourful kanga trousers, which might take a few hours to make, can be sold for $10-$15 US dollars – a revolutionary amount in terms of the women’s livelihood. This is why African Impact has begun running English classes during sewing sessions, Toni explains. To give the women the confidence and vocabulary to engage with tourists in order to boost their business.
We’re role playing now, taking turns as tourists and Kanga Ladies. Mama Ramla leaves the room and struts back in, clutching a Rough Guide to Swahili and doing her best impersonation of a mzungu.
“How much these trousers?” She asks, fingering a pair of billowy green I-Dream-of-Jeannie trousers hanging from a clothesline that bisects the room.
The clothes are made from kanga cloth, broad cotton rectangles dyed multiple colours, decorated with various designs and often bearing Kiswahili phrases along their borders. Kangas can be traced back to Africa’s east coast in the mid nineteenth century, but notions of how they originated are as varied as Zanzibar’s cultural make-up. Some records suggest they were made by stitching together printed handkerchiefs like those carried by Portuguese traders, or cut from rolls of scarves Indian traders had brought to Mombasa and Zanzibar. Others say the first kangas were created by freed slaves who celebrated their emancipation by decorating the white uniforms they had been forced to wear. Whatever their origins, kangas are now an integral part of Jambiani’s growing tourist trade with the ability to enhance the lives of their creators.
After class some of the women stay back to continue working, while others join us to walk back through the village, home. A young woman holds her arms out for Toni’s baby, Aziza (Kiswahili for ‘precious’), who quietly fed and slumbered through our class. Toni hands her over, the woman wraps Aziza in the kanga she is wearing so it forms a protective sling around her, and we walk on – volunteers, Kanga Ladies, Toni and Aziza – picking our way over potholes and coral rocks in the fading light.
To volunteer with African Impact, visit http://www.africanimpact.com.