Author - Husna S

A Brief History of Leso, and the Empowerment of Women

The leso, or kanga, is a symbol of Swahili culture since the very beginning. The long fabric made of cotton and printed with elaborate design and border then finished with a Swahili proverb expresses emotion, femininity, beauty, and power. It is one of the very few things that is distinctly, and purely Swahili with little to no influence from outside sources save for the method of the making of the leso. When we take a closer look at the history of the kanga, we owe it to the women of the coast for giving us the gift of the kanga. It was in the 19th century that Swahili women took the cloth, that was at the time being imported by the Portuguese, cut it to two pieces and began dyeing them in indigo -which was the colour available at the time- or putting patterns on them to decorate and give it a more feminine touch. What was the reason for this?

 At the turn of the century, due to British colonization, slavery had been abolished in the coastal town along the East African coast. Women from Zanzibar onwards were now free, and what do women do when they get freedom? Shop, of course. Women were now empowered, and were able to live the life they really wanted. To express themselves in ways they never had before, and the easiest way to do so was through fashion and appearance. Originally, the leso was just a white plain cloth worn by slave men and women to distinguish themselves from the Arabs who owned them, but upon coming across the new found freedom, they redeemed the clothes worn, began printing elaborate and beautiful designs on them, cutting and sewing them into dresses, turbans, pants, and making a visually striking statement that says ‘I am a free woman.’ And the statement was made. Lesos were a fashion icon worn now not just by slaves, but every fashion conscious woman in the coast. It showed luxury, style, and class. It wasn’t until much later on that the Swahili proverbs were put on the leso. The proverbs were at first written in Arabic letters as that was the way Swahili was written pre-colonization. The proverbs were then changed to Latin letters and every leso had a beautiful proverb to express the feelings of the giver, to the receiver.

The leso had also become a symbol of wealth. Swahili women upon marriage were told to invest in leso as a sort of ‘insurance’ for if their marriage falls out, for when all is lost, you can sell your gold or leso to insure you have wealth and are not down and out, left at the mercy of a man’s wallet. The kanga is much more than just a piece of cloth to add to beauty, and we should as the new generation work to ensure the importance of the kanga does not get lost.

When in Mombasa, check out the various shops in Mwembe Kuku that sell leso, kitenge, and other local Swahili clothing items. When in the shops, ask about the process of making the beautiful designs, the shop owner will be glad to explain to you.

3 Locally owned spots to get authentic Swahili home decor

Upon browsing interior design pages (a guilty pleasure of mine) I noticed a trend in interior that was oddly very similar to the unique interiors of a typical Swahili home. Weaved rugs and baskets, brass and copper plates, white walls decorated with dark wooden furniture…So to inspire you, I compiled a list of just a few of my favourite locally Mombasarian owned spots you can find unique, beautiful, (currently trending!) locally made and sustainable pieces to give some life to your living space!  

1. This store located close to Fort Jesus has been around for a long time and has continued to provide beautiful Swahili decorations from beds and love seats, to the smallest knick knacks such as rings and cups. Every piece is breathtaking in how intricate they are. All of the pieces from the biggest to smallest are locally owned and made with locally sourced material if you happen to be conscience of such things. The store on the road to Fort Jesus has the smaller decor pieces but ask the employee there to show you their wood workshop located right behind their store where they make larger pieces such as dining tables, chairs, and cabinets made from hardwood which will last you for -literally- generations to come.  

2. The next stop is a personal favourite of mine specializing in brass items, mostly lights and lanterns, however they do carry other brass items such as plates, coffee pots, etc. Every piece is gorgeous and locally made, no imports here! The store is owned by a family who have been there for a very long time through generations and continue to provide amazing pieces that would light up (pun definitely intended!) any home or office. The pieces are made of brass which was the go to metal for home decor not too long ago but has since been taken over by cheaper metals that tend to rust over time and plastic. Brass, with delicate care, will last generations. Stop by and take a look at their work and buy a new lantern to set on your table for a fresh and classic look! The store is located in the heart of Kibokoni, down the road where Barka Restaurant is.  

3. These side of the road spots close to Biashara St. sell clay pots and incense burners as well as weaved items such as baskets and weaved rugs called janvi. All items are locally made and the women who sell them are very sweet and a pleasure to speak with. This is as local as you can get as most of the items traditionally were used all the time, are hardly used anymore being replaced with synthetic fibre carpets and boxes. The pots sold can be used to cook or to add as decor to give an organic feel to your home.

5 Things to Do After Iftar in Mombasa

Ramadan is upon us on the sunny island of Mombasa and with it comes the long nights filled with prayer, old town adorned in lights, and delicious street food being sold almost in every corner right before the break of the fast. The maghrib prayer -that is the prayer at sunset- is the call for the fasters to finally eat to their hearts content. What do Mombasans do after? Find below 5 things to do after iftar, or the break of the fast, during Ramadan.

1. Get a shawarma or mishkaki

After almost 12 hours of a full fast, you work up a bit of an appetite. Take a walk through out the streets after the breaking of the fast and you’ll see people lined up in little corner kiosks where they sell mishkaki or shawarma to make sure your tummy is filled up for the next days fast. A crowd favorite is at Makadara: famous for their succulent pieces of flavorful mishkaki you can never go wrong with this local favorite.

2. Drink a cool refreshing falooda

A warm balmy night in Mombasa during Ramadan is incomplete without a drink of falooda – an ice cream shake made with fruits, or other ingredients, vermicelli, chia seeds, milk or avocado. It’s a classic and has been around for ages in Mombasa. A crowd favorite is Azad Ice Cream where they offer the classic falooda and modern takes of the falooda with flavors featuring your favorite chocolate bars – twix, snickers, the works. Delicious!

3. Take a stroll around Old Town

Ramadan is beaming with life at night when people rush to catch extra prayers, catch up with friends, or just walk off all the food eaten at sunset. From Makadara on wards, the lights are up and it’s a pleasant vibe to just take in the characteristic beauty of Old Town. Meet up with some friends and get a smoothie on the way and enjoy the melodic prayers booming from the mosques speakers nearby.

4. Visit a historical mosque

Prayers are an important part of Ramadan as this is the time for Muslims to really work hard and get as much prayers and charity as they can get in this month. Every mosque will have Taraweeh prayers (Voluntary night prayers) and recite the Quran during the prayers. Don’t be shy and take a look inside, but you’ll have to hurry, the mosques fill up fast!

5. Friendly game of Keram, or cards

Keram is a game which consists of a large smooth board with chips that you hit with your fingers that slide to the goals on each corner of the board. It’s a game played in India, the Middle East, and found its way (through colonization and Arab influence) to little ole Mombasa. It’s a game played often during Ramadan as a way to pass time during the fasting hours and to relax after the break. If you take a walk in Old Town and go really deep in the winding alley ways, you’ll see neighbors playing a friendly game and maybe a small crowd of children eagerly cheering them on. Ask to join in and try it out, but be warned! It’s a lot harder than it looks!