Thursday, April 10, 2008

I had lunch this week with my friend and former Swahili teacher, who had her bag stuffed full of kangas to lend to a student who was doing a presentation about the kanga later in the day.

The kanga is a popular piece of clothing/all around useful item in Tanzania-- lots of people call it the 'traditional' clothing, but I think that would be stretching it a bit-- as I understand it, it wasn't really introduced until early in the 20th century-- but it is certainly much-loved, both deeply and widely associated with Tanzanian culture. Anyway, it's a colorful cloth featuring bright patterns and a saying of some sort. The saying can be used to give a message to the recipient (if it's a wedding gift, it may have a saying of good wishes for the new household,for example), or the wearer may use the message to communicate with others in the house or neighborhood about something that's been on her mind. Usually the saying is in Swahili (although on Pres. Bush's recent trip to Tanzania, I saw that the commemorative kanga worn by the women greeting him was in English). Swahili these days generally uses Roman script.

Back to my friend's recent kanga acquisition. She had one new kanga that used Arabic script! This is very unusual-- Arabic script was used for writing Swahili for centuries, mainly by poets, but when the British missionaries began their literacy work in East Africa, they went with the Roman script. For various historical reasons, this was the method that stuck. I had heard tell that there were still some poets in the coastal region that preferred Arabic, but hadn't come across it anywhere myself. Now this kanga! Popular culture with Arabicized Swahili! How cool is that?!

I did my best to read it, but frankly, the Arabic writing system really isn't very well suited for Swahili. Granted, my grasp of the Arabic writing system is limited, to put it mildly-- I took a year of the language about 15 years ago and haven't done much with it since-- but I don't think it's all me. There are a few more vowels in Swahili than Arabic, for one thing, and several consonants don't match up well with the letters available. Though I suppose that the same criticisms could be made of the Roman alphabet. But anyway. This one translated roughly as "I will not leave my husband because of rumors in the neighborhood." I don't understand the choice of Arabic script for this, but it's probably meaningful. There's always more than one level of meaning in Swahili.

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