Con(Texts): Re-Examining the Social Life of Kanga Cloth

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Con(Texts): Re-Examining the Social Life of Kanga Cloth
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Africa e Mediterraneo: Cultura e Societa
Birch, Stephanie
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The kanga, a type of East African textile, is a central part of daily life along the Swahili coast. Lately, the kanga market turned this cloth into an internationally-recognized icon of African culture. Its mass production makes it more accessible to poor women, yet there are still negative consequences relating to a certain degree of cultural loss linked to this process.
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39 Con(Texts): Re-Examining the Social Life of Kanga ClothThe kanga, a type of East African textile, is a central part of daily life along the Swahili coast. Lately, the kanga market turned this cloth into an internationally-recognized icon of African culture. Its mass production makes it more accessible to poor women, yet there are still negative consequences relating to a certain degree of cultural loss linked to this process.By Stephanie Birch and Anne Namatsi LutomiaAfrican textiles are often characterized by vi-brant, highly-saturated colors and bold pat-terns. To the untrained eye, the kanga (also called leso) of the Swahili coastal region may seem indierent from machine-dyed cloths found in other parts of the continent. How-ever, the kanga is more than a piece of fabric-it is a space for women to voice unspeakable communication and a wom-en-centered repository for indigenous knowledge and femi-nisms. This cloth features bold designs in varying colors with proverb-like text called jina, meaning name. Functioning like bumper stickers or buttons, customers nd appropriate-word-


40 ed cloths to provide an indirect voice and support them in their personal life, signal their political stance and announce their religious beliefs. This article discusses the social life of the kan-ga, its commodication, and changing function in East African society. The kanga textile industry has rapidly expanded over the last two decades, giving rise to new issues around their manufacture, consumption, and inuences in daily lives of East African women. As a result of the changes in the manufactur-ing process, the context of kanga usage is shifting away from its communicative functions in recording womens histories and transmitting culturally-subversive messages. Throughout this article we make use of terms attached to com-plex histories and meanings. We employ the following terms through the frameworks, denitions, and perspectives de-scribed below: Kanga For the sake of clarity, we favor the term kanga over others words used to describe the same type of textile (such as leso and khanga). The term kanga was used to refer to color-ful printed clothes (made by block or mechanical processes) during the era of Indian Ocean slave trade to create social dis-tinction between free and enslaved Africans, who wore plain clothes, called merikani and kaniki (Fair 1998). Indigenous & Traditional There are many denitions and connotations of the term indigenous. In discussing indigenous knowledge, we borrow from Chidi Oguamanams argument in his book, International Law and Indigenous Knowledge, in which he applies a broader denition that includes so-called local communities [and] non-Western cultures (2006). While we recognize the nuances existing between indigenous and tradi-tional knowledges, we use these terms interchangeably to refer to culturally-coded knowledge produced, shared, and recreated among an identity group as an aspect of the cultural dynamic of its practitioners (Oguamanam 2006). Like Oguamanam, we reject the notion that such knowledge[s] [are] antiquated, stat-ic, and inferior to Western [knowledge] (Oguamanam 2006). Swahili The term Swahili is used in multiple ways throughout this article. Firstly, Swahili (or Waswahili) is used to refer to an ethnic identity group formed during the Indian Ocean slave trade and in the post-abolition era. Secondly, this term is again used when referring to the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanza-nia, including their island regions, specically Zanzibar. Finally, Swahili (or KiSwahili) is used in reference to the language of the Swahili people during slave-trade era and its more modern iter-ations throughout the East African region following the era of independence in the mid-late 20th century. Jina The message that a kanga carries, printed in uppercase in Swahili and sometimes Sheng (an urban linguistic derivative of English and Swahili) in a rectangle with a white background for readability. Examples of majina (plural) are: Penzi halichagui rangi / Love knows no color Kwake nimetulia / In him I have found tranquility Mola twashukuru / we praise God Mungu ni mwema / God is good Subira ina malipo / Patience pays Zawadi ya Idd / A gift of IdD


41 Kanga and Its UsesThe kanga is distinctly recognizable from other African textiles because of its design. Its basic design structure consists of a pat-terned border (pindo) surrounding a central motif (mji) and Swa-hili proverb or phrase (jina), which eectively marks the intended orientation for the cloth to be worn. Typically, kangas measure 1 m x 1 m and are sold in pairs (doti) (Zawawi 2005). While commonly worn as a dress, wrap skirt, or shawl, the kanga has unlimited uses, some of which are listed in K angas: 101 Uses (Han-by 1985). This book illustrates the broad versatility of the kanga, including three swimsuit styles, multiple methods for tying a skirt or dress, as well as other practical uses, such as a head-pad for carrying heavy loads, a sail, and mosquito net (Hanby 1985). The kanga continues to be repurposed and is now used as a fab-ric to tailor formal and informal clothes for men and women, as well as part of the material for making swimming wear, shoes and earrings, decor etc. In the fashion industry, the East African fashion week designs made of kanga cloth continue to dominate the show. Kangas are used in celebrations such as weddings, fu-nerals, birthdays, national days, traditional dances and even in burial ceremonies. Women use kangas when working on farms or in the kitchen. Indeed, the tying of the kanga when there is a task to be done signals a readiness to work. Women in East Africa exchange kangas as gifts, with mothers buying or handing down cloths to their daughters as an intergenerational inheritance. In communities throughout East Africa and other parts of the world, the kanga becomes an artifact tying women together The kanga has been an important identity-making tool among East African women during the Indian Ocean slave trade and in the post-abolition era. East African women rst began wearing the kanga during the 18th century, but it wasnt until the 1870s that the cloth gained its fame among elite Zanzibaris who want-ed to separate themselves from the enslaved populations (Lin-neburgh 1992). When slavery was abolished and former slaves started buying items that indicated their mobility as free enti-ties, the kanga became one of these objects (McCurdy 2006). Early kanga texts were written in Arabic and later changed into Swahili printed in the roman script, further contributing to the Swahili identity-in-the-making (Barnes 2005). The incorporation of text transformed the kanga from a symbolic expression of identity to a silent, communicative action, by which cultural-ly and linguistically-coded messages can be shared, received, and interpreted among a community of belongers. In her work about the kanga and the co-production of cultures in Africa and the Indian Ocean Region, Ressler traced the diverse contribu-tions to kanga design motifs to Persia, Kashmir, Scotland, India, Arabia and Indonesia (2012). Social and Political Functions Throughout its history, the kanga has been a site for unspo-ken communication between women for riddling one another (wanawake kufumbiana) and conict resolution (kanga za kujibi-zana). By wearing the kanga, women used the body as a site to All images: Examples of kanga brands. Gerald Andrew Akolo


42 construct spaces where they could participate and engage one another in what is considered private and prohibited conversa-tions. The social life of the kanga provided East African women with a means for accessing social and political arenas by disrupt-ing patriarchal societal norms of privacy and modest behavior. Kangas and the way women use them can be imagined as a form of texting, where you receive a message and respond, or on Face-book, where individuals leave messages to trigger responses. The kanga continues to be of value as an item of clothing and dis-play, and as a medium for communicating a range of messages about status, identity, relationships, and other social commen-tary (McCurdy 2006). Historically, the jina or text of the kanga has been the most important aspect in its consumption and util-ity as a result of the proverbial communicative tradition within Swahili society (Beck 2001; 2005). The choice to wear a kanga must be intentional and not based solely on the printed pattern or color, because, when wearing this type of cloth, ones emo-tions, thoughts, or beliefs literally and literarily adorn the body. While women have been central to the consumption and circu-lation of the kanga textiles, they have also been responsible for the composition of popular kanga texts that reect and speak directly to their lived experiences and perspectives. Typically, women would create the sayings and give them to the manufac-turers in exchange for a small amount of money or a kanga of their choice (McCurdy 2006). However, womens labor in kanga production is often unrecognized and uncompensated. As a re-sult of their creative contributions, the kanga uniquely serves as an historical record of Swahili womens histories and a marker of their participation in the creation of intergenerational indig-enous knowledge and literacy. Changes to Kanga textiles With all of its convenience and versatility, it is no surprise that the kanga has become more prevalent in East African society than ever before in fashion, tourism, and everyday use. As a result of sweeping manufacturing changes over the last twen-ty years, kanga textiles are cheaper and more broadly acces-sible throughout the region. The traditional uses of the kanga have been repurposed and it is now used for just about any-thing and by anyone. Acting an informal social archive, the changes to the production and uses of kanga textiles reect broader changes in East African society and culture, specical-ly relating to technology, language, and religion. The shift in language is reected in the introduction of Sheng, a mixture of Swahili and English mostly spoken in urban cities of Kenya. Christianization of the Kanga While Swahili Muslim women have been documented as the sole writers of the proverbial texts, there is no data indicat-ing how Christian women or organizations participated, even though there is evidence that they do. Whereas kanga texts have been specically authored by Muslim women, a new trend has emerged, leading to a prevalence of Christian religious themes. The Christianization of kanga texts is a direct result of changes in the manufacturing practices, while also reecting and con-tributing to a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Islamic sentiments throughout East Africa. Unlike in prior times when messages were mostly coined in the form of sayings with less references to God. Now the messages have explicit biblical tones. Kanga pur-chasing is also inuenced by the religion of the buyer. Kanga s with Christian messages are mostly purchased by Christian wom-en, while Muslims buy the kangas featuring Islamic messages. Technology and Language While kangas have been machine printed since the early 20th century (Ongoa-Morara 2014), the rapid growth of techno-logical innovation during the 21st century has transformed that textile production process and is allowing manufactur-ers to produce in larger quantities and varieties of colors, patterns, and styles. In fact, technology has become so per-vasive throughout the Swahili coast that its inuence is some-times reected in kanga pattern designs and textual messages. The kanga is quickly becoming an internationally-recognized icon of East African culture, as a result of its broader accessi-bility and aordability from the mass production process. Ad-ditionally, online and mobile technologies allow East Africans new opportunities in global communication, with the kanga appearing in web stores, blogs, various social media platforms, music videos, and more. As a result, African and European cou-ture fashion designers have begun to include the kanga as part of a larger appropriation of African and African-inspired prints. Manufacturing and Production The liberalization of economy under the structural adjust-ment program led to the collapse of the textile and clothing industry and the closure of Kenyan manufacturing compa-nies, such as Kikomi and Rivatex (Cormody 1998). Other companies that remain open have recently been purchased or received major investments from foreign corporations, such as Uraki Textiles Mills Company Limited, now called Tanzania-China Friendship Textiles Company Limited (FTC) (Mwansela, Sichona, Akarro 2011). While FTCs name would suggest that it is a model of successful internation-al commercial cooperation, over 1,000 FTC workers im-plemented a strike on November 12, 2016 over unethical wages practices (Mjasiri 2016; Koumbia 2016). This new precedent in the African textile industry has created a plat-form market scheme, which disrupts the producer-buyer relationship by interjecting a middleman or intermediary platform (Rochet & Tirole 2004). At the expense of local in-dustry, manufacturer use an intermediary platform to out-source labor and use cheaper materials to produce larger quantities or lower quality and more aordable textiles. As previously mentioned, the manufacturing process has been a leading cause in the changes to kanga textiles over the last twenty years. Manufacturers and middlemen who operate in Kenya, Tanzania, India, China and Europe con-tinue to be the main beneciaries of the kanga industry (Parkin 2004). While women have historically authored and been responsible for the popularization of the kanga, majina are now written by manufacturers without input from their consumers. In an eort to appeal to the wide possible au-dience, manufacturers may plagiarize popular proverbs or rely on very generic statements. This process has not only economically disenfranchised East African women who had previously been compensated for their contributions, it has eectively limited their agency to communicate their own experiences, thoughts, and attitudes through the kanga.


43 Emerging Issues of Kanga Industry Increased manufacturing and consumption of kanga textiles has gained international attention, appearing in European and African haute couture designs. While this has expanded the market, the culturally appropriative applications of kan-ga textiles in high fashion has negative consequences. Firstly, designers using the kanga textiles are participating in a manu-facturing industry that has disenfranchised East African knowl-edge producers. Secondly, the transmission of the kangas message from the wearer to the recipient is disrupted when neither are able to read Kiswahili and when the text is com-pletely or partially removed in the construction of the garment. Foreign manufacturers are also directly complicit in the cul-tural appropriation of the kanga. The quality of the kanga has been compromised, which has admittedly made the cloth more accessible to women, who previously needed to save for a long time in order to access one. Prices are largely depend-ent on the fabric type and quality, with a variety of textures to choose from, such as waxed, nylon, polyester and pure cotton. The pure cotton kanga is the most expensive and pre-ferred among consumers, ranging from ten dollars per pair to about ve dollars. The branding company producing the kan-ga determines the price; some of the brands on the market are Mali ya Abdallah, Mali ya Mohamed, Mali ya Tanzania, Mali ya Baraka, Mali ya Furaha and Mali ya Mtoto, to name a few. Mass-manufacturing has triggered signicant changes to the role of the kanga in society and broader cultural communica-tive norms. According to Rose Marie Beck, communication in East African society is proverbial, with many ambiguities, limitations, and a normalcy of politeness (Beck 2001; 2005). Whereas the kanga has traditionally been used as a strategy for culturally and politically subversive commentary, the re-cent production of generic majina is de-politicizing the acts of wearing, gifting, or displaying the kanga. If a cloth becomes a kanga only by virtue of its proverbial message, then clothes with generic messages are not true kangas when they do not aid the consumer in challenging or navigating the nuanced the social or political landscapes. Whereas a kanga text has been arguably the most important factoring in purchasing, gifting, or wearing a kanga, consumers are now equally if not more concerned with fabric quality, color, and design. This signies a major change in the social function and purpose of the kanga that only serves to further limit the agency and creative contributions of women, who have relied on pro-verbial communication to navigate complex cultural norms. The kanga has historically served as a woman-centered community-based archive of indigenous knowledge, how-ever, it no longer serves as an historical record as a result of the mass-manufacturing process controlled by foreign in-vestors and corporations. Rather, todays kanga is a mere imitation, lacking the essence, spirit, authenticity, and au-thority of an original work, or aura, as Walter Benjamin de-scribed it (Benjamin 2004). As an historical document, the kanga reects the cross-cultural and multi-ethnic exchang-es and interactions (Ressler 2012), yet the misappropriation of the kanga in the manufacturing process fractures these historical connections. Without women composing texts that reect and react to their changing societal contexts, East African womens history is being preemptively erased. Con(testi): riesaminando la vita sociale del kangaIl kanga, un tessuto tradizionalmente prodotto nellAfrica orientale, centrale nella vita di ogni giorno per le donne della costa swahili. Per le donne dellAfrica orientale, indossare questo tipo di tessuto significa non solo scegliere un certo tipo di fantasia o colore, ma anche comunicare unemozione, un pensiero, un sapere tradizionale agli altri e alle altre donne. Si constatato un cambiamento nella produzione di questo prodotto tessile tradizionale, che il risultato di contributi creativi delle donne, spesso non riconosciuti. Ad esempio, le innovazioni portate dalla produzione di massa hanno reso il kanga pi accessibile. Sta cambiando anche il ruolo delle donne nel processo di produzione e nel contesto di comunicazione culturale, oltre al significato che il kanga riveste nella societ dellAfrica orientale. In questo saggio, viene analizzata la vita sociale del kanga attraverso la sua produzione e commercializzazione, nonch il suo ruolo di archivio alternativo e di rottura coi sistemi patriarcali. Tracciando la sua storia, occorre parlare delle (in)variate iterazioni di questo tessuto attraverso il quale le donne costruiscono conoscenza indigena e pensiero femminista. La pratica ininterrotta di comunicazione tramite il kanga fornisce alle donne uno spazio nel quale essere ascoltate, resistere al patriarcato, giocare e risolvere conflitti. Nella richiesta delle donne dellAfrica orientale di riconoscimento e controllo dei loro contributi allindustria manifatturiera, in particolare dei Diritti di propriet intellettuale, il kanga al contempo il luogo e la fonte dellazione. Esse sono sempre pi consapevoli che esso diventato uno spazio in cui possono dare voce ai loro messaggi indicibili, sospendendo le norme patriarcali di privacy e modestia. Si pu dire che chi veste il kanga partecipa a ci che James Scott chiama: forme di resistenza quotidiane nel suo libro Le armi dei deboli. In ultimo, tramite il concetto di piattaforma marketing (essa fornisce mediazione fra un compratore e un produttore), vengono esplorate le caratteristiche del mercato del kanga in Africa orientale, considerando le problematiche relative al copyright, alla produzione e distribuzione, alla vendita. Le industrie manifatturiere stanno sempre pi appaltando a terzi il lavoro e utilizzando tessuti poco costosi, il che rende il kanga disponibile ad unampia scala di acquirenti, a spese per delle manifatture locali. Il risultato delle piattaforme di marketing che la maggior parte di coloro che compongono i testi dei kanga (principalmente donne) sono sconosciuti e non ricompensati per i loro contributi, anche in caso di testi che hanno avuto un grande successo presso i consumatori.


44 Re-Claiming the Kanga In response to similar capitalist practices around the world, many indigenous groups and cultural communities are ght-ing to protect the integrity of their indigenous knowledges. The Navajo Nation, Maori, and Maasai are just a few exam-ples of cultural communities embroiled in lengthy battles to gain control of the use and production of culturally-derived goods. These groups have each employed two distinct ap-proaches: legal action in pursuit of intellectual property rights (IPR) and social justice advocacy at the local and international levels. By following in the footsteps of other indigenous pop-ulations, East African women have the opportunity to re-as-sert their position within the kanga manufacturing industry. At present, international intellectual property laws have not yet developed far enough to appreciate and navigate the complex history of the kanga and its multi-ethnic co-pro-duction throughout the East African region. Even if East Af-rican women were successful in obtaining IPR, it is unlikely that they would be able to enforce those rights against large foreign corporations. So, while pursuing IPR action is not necessarily feasible or benecial, East African women eco-nomically displaced by the kanga manufacturing industry possess the social and economic capital to demand change. Being that the kanga cloth tradition is one of cultural subver-sion, it seamlessly intersects practices of social justice action. Through advocacy, coalition building, and collective action practices, East African women are able to further participate in what James Scott calls everyday forms of resistance to oppressive systems (Scott 1985). There are three critical steps in moving forward: raising awareness, gaining support, and taking action. Raising Awareness East African women have several oppor-tunities for raising awareness at their disposal. At the local level, individuals and community organizations (formal and informal) can create grassroots campaigns to disseminate in-formation about changes in the kanga manufacturing indus-try, widening cultural misappropriation, and opportunities for collective action. Gaining Support Women can bolster their local eorts by collaborating with NGOs and international organizations that advocate for traditional knowledges and ethical fash-ion initiatives. Such collaborative relationships can drive international awareness campaigns, coordinate solidari-ty eorts with other groups with similar interests, and fa-cilitate important connections with legal professionals. Taking Action Finally, through awareness and support, East African women can develop social and legal campaigns target-ed at specic companies within the kanga industry and nego-tiate changes to end exploitative practices. Through these processes, East African women can use their collective power to reclaim their position in the manufac-turing process and re-appropriate the kanga to its previous function as a communicative and archival tool. As African women continue to be rendered invisible in the making of history and culture, the archive is an increasingly important space. There they are able to document their experiences and join the project of building with memory inclusive to the records, histories, and future narratives of those living at the fringe of society. Should East African women seek to reclaim these cloths, the can also move to include the kanga in the national archive as an historical collection of material culture representing the conditions and contexts of wom-ens daily lives, as suggested by Sanya and Lutomia (2015). Conclusion Due to the changes to manufacturing processes, kanga texts are becoming more iconographic than communicative. As a result of these changes to the communicative aspects of the kanga, consumer habits and preferences are shifting when purchas-ing, wearing, or gifting these clothes away from the transmis-sion of proverbial messages towards a greater consideration for visual aesthetics. The contextual role of the kanga in East African society is changing symptomatically as a result of for-eign-invested mass production and the pervasive inuences of technology. Despite these changes, East African women can capitalize on their collective power to renegotiate their position in the kanga industry as producers and consumers of tradition-al knowledge. In this way, the history of the kanga can continue to be a testament of the collective power of women in Africa. N OTE1 This is based on a series of interviews conducted on by Gerald Andrew Akolo with kanga buyers and traders at a market in Mumias, Kenya in October 2016. REFERENCESR. Barnes, Textiles in Indian Ocean societies, Routledge, London 2005 R. M. 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