maasai people wearing red shuka

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Eastern Africa

Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where every week, we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world. This week we’ll be looking at clothes distinct to East Africa.

For this post, countries considered to be part of East Africa are those that are members of the East African Community, which is a regional intergovernmental entity. The six countries are Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Clothing in East Africa: An Introduction

Like food, water and shelter, clothing is also a basic need. Particularly in terms of providing warmth and protection from extreme climatic conditions. However, clothing has a larger role to play than simply protecting the body. Clothing is also a form of cultural identity and expression. It indicates where we come from, what the conditions are like in our place of origin, what our culture is like, what we believe in, how we live life and where we stand in society.

There are two types of clothing. One type is more functional and is worn every day and the other type is more formal, historical and unique to a certain culture or nation. The latter is worn on special occasions and occasions that require the expression of culture.

This concept applies to clothing everywhere in the world. And, today we’ll discover some of the many types of clothing that are distinct to the people of East Africa.

Before that, let’s take a look at what influences the types of cultural clothing in this region, how they evolved and, some of the common garments used by many East Africans.

Evolution of East African Clothing

The history of clothing in East Africa and the continent, in general, is difficult to trace back as there is very little written documentation from the past. However, some information can be gathered from art like sculptures and performing arts, traditional clothes available to the people today and, oral history passed down over generations.

In Africa, including this part of the continent, the way one dresses indicates what tribe or clan they belong to, their gender, marital and social status and age.

Since the Palaeolithic period, animal skins have been the common material used to make clothes. Over time, methods to process their skins were developed to create leather. In East Africa, the cow was and is found in abundance so, its hides were extracted and processed to make cloaks, wrapping skirts, loincloths, belts, mats, beds and aprons. Alternatively, the hides of goats and calves would also be used.

Every ethnic group had their own way of tanning the hides. For instance, some groups in Kenya used the bark of trees, lemon or ash for the process, while some groups in Rwanda, for example, had a more complex process that involved drying the skin, stretching it, scraping the flesh with a native tool and finally rubbing it with grease before wearing it. People skilled in making leather were highly respected and their craft was honoured.

Barkcloth was another material that was used to make clothes. When humans learnt how to make tools out of stone, they invented tools to peel, pound and soften tree bark, enough to make fabric. Initially, men and women would use belts and bark cloth to cover the lower half of their bodies. Over time, they’d use this material to cover both the upper and lower portions of their bodies.

an old picture from East Africa showing two Ugandan women wearing barkcloth
Ugandan Women in barkcloth wrapper. Image Credit: Pinterest

Cultural Exchange

It wasn’t until the 19th century that cotton became the widespread material in this region. The material was introduced by traders and colonizers and it proved to be better suited to the tropical and warm weather of East Africa.

Trade along with colonization, religious missions and immigration acted as catalysts for cultural exchange with the Arabs, Indians and Europeans. As such, East Africa sees a lot of these influences in their own cultures. Clothing is a good example to demonstrate these cultural influences. The Kitenge, also known as African wax print fabric, is a common type of fabric used for clothing in both western and eastern Africa. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Sudan are some of the countries in East Africa that uses kitenge daily.


Kitenge is a cotton fabric that uses a variety of vibrant colours and patterns. Interestingly, these patterns are made using a version of the Indonesian batik technique. And there is a reason behind it.

The Dutch had been trading in Indonesia since the 16th century before eventually colonizing the archipelago in the 19th century. There, the Dutch merchants learned about batik and, they took back some samples of batik textiles to the Netherlands. Back in the Netherlands, textile producers found ways to produce batik in bulk and at a lower cost. These inferior batiks were introduced to Indonesia but, they didn’t sell well there. They were, however, well received in their trading ports in West Africa in the 19th century and, from there, they soon spread to other African countries. That is how it became popular in Eastern Africa as well.

Kitenge is mainly used by women, to wear it like a wrapping skirt, similar to the Southeast Asian sarong, or to wear it like a robe, tying it at the chest, as a headscarf and, to carry babies. They are even stitched into dresses, pants, shirts and skirts. They are, overall, a part of everyday attire.  Kitenge that are of better quality and that have more elegant patterns are presented as gifts and are even part of local wedding festivities.

man and woman wearing kitenge fabric shirt
Kitenge shirts. Image Credit: Kitenge Store

The colour combinations and patterns have made the kitenge a symbol of Africa.

Wrapping clothes similar to the kitenge are prominent in this region. Today they’re all made of cotton as it helps the wearer keep cool in the heat and warm when the temperatures drop slightly.

Religion and Local Cultures

Another factor that influences cultural clothing is religion. Christianity, Islam and local animist religions are the common religions practised in this region and the level of modesty required in one’s attire depends on religion. Additionally, the cultures of each tribe also impact the type of clothing worn. Every tribe has their own way of dressing and, therefore, there isn’t one single outfit that can be declared the national costume of any of the six countries. However, certain garments are distinct to a country.

Without further ado, let’s look at some of these clothes.


In Tanzania, the Swahili culture is prominent. The Swahili people live on the Swahili coast, referring to the coastal area of Eastern and Southeastern Africa that border the Indian Ocean. Today, Swahili is one of the official languages in Tanzania, showing the extent of the culture in the country.

The Swahili people have a rich and multi-cultural heritage due to their interactions with Arabs, Indians, Indonesians and Europeans in the region. These influences can be seen in their traditional dress and their way of dressing.

For example, the influence of Islam and Christianity has made modesty an important value in conservative Tanzanian society. Men and women must wear modest clothes in public and in front of elderly people. Men cannot wear shorts as they must always cover their knees and women are expected to wear clothes that cover their shoulders, knees and thighs.

Tanzania is also home to over 120 tribes who have their own cultural identity and thus their own way of dressing. So, there is no Tanzanian dress per se. However, there are traditional garments that are worn more frequently than others. As such, they are now recognized as traditional Tanzanian attire.


An example of such attire would be the Kanzu. The Kanzu is traditionally worn by Muslim Swahili but today, it is the national costume of Tanzania, suggesting that other cultures have also adopted it in the country.

A Kanzu is a floor-length white robe with full sleeves, similar to the  Middle Eastern thobe. It is worn with either a western-style suit jacket or a loose-fitted long-sleeved cloak known as a bisht. An embroidered cylindrical hat with a flat top called a kofia completes the outfit. This hat has hundreds of tiny holes made to allow airflow.

men wearing the East African kanzu
Kanzu with a suit jacket. Image Credit: Petronella Photography

Kanzu was inspired by the clothes introduced to Tanzania by Arab merchants and Omani missionaries. That would explain the similarities between the kofia and the Omani kumma hat.

Kanzu is only worn on prayer day, which is every Friday and on religious and special occasions. Daily clothing consists of trousers and shirts.


Women, on the other hand, wear kanga. Kanga is a rectangular piece of fabric that is made of pure cotton. The difference between kanga and a kitenge is that the material of a kitenge is thicker and of superior quality. Kitenge is also commonly used to tailor everyday clothes, whereas tailoring clothes from the thinner kanga is a very recent concept and is presently only done on a small scale.  Both are, however, part of everyday attire in Eastern Africa.

The word kanga translates to guinea fowl in Swahili and it is named that way because the patterns on the fabric resemble the specks on the feathers of the local bird.  The designs often represent the Tanzanian landscape, flora, fauna and cultural symbols. Designs can even have political logos and messages which are worn in support of a certain political party during their election campaign. There is even a special kanga for weddings, which is called kisutu and comes in white, black and red.

In the rectangular cloth, there is a thick frame-like colourful border with designs and the middle is often of a contrasting colour with more motifs. Just above the bottom border, there is a message written in Swahili.

East African cotton kanga with message at the bottom
Tanzanian Kanga. Image Credit: DamonMotzStorey

Kanga History

Kangas were developed in the mid-19th century when Muslim women on the Swahili coast purchased printed bandanas that were introduced to the area by Portuguese merchants. These printed bandanas used an Indian hand-block-printing technique to print the designs. The women then stitched six of the bandanas together and made a fabric that could be used to cover themselves modestly.

Messages on Kanga

The messages, or jina, weren’t initially a part of kangas. They were only added at the beginning of the 20th century. The messages use proverbs, poetry or a moral from a story in the Swahili language to convey many types of messages. They could be advice for people to learn good habits and good family values. They could be a positive message to themselves, which is most applicable to girls reaching womanhood or young women; in that case, the messages serve as teachings and warnings about possible situations in life. Some messages act as secret romantic messages intended for their husbands. Or, they could be a subtle insult intended for a specific person or, viewers in general. Women oftentimes aren’t able to verbally express themselves due to societal norms, but they feel like they can truly speak their minds through the messages on their kangas.

women wrapped in East African kanga
Women wearing kanga. Image Credit: Elissa Spruill via Blendspace

Purchasing and Wearing a Kanga

Kangas are bought in pairs as women usually wear two kangas at a time. Both pieces come as one long piece that must be cut into two. The cut edges must then be sewed before wearing. Kangas are gifted at weddings, birthdays and even to guests to welcome them or as a symbol of friendship.

To wear the kanga, women first wear a long dress, which can also be tailored from kanga fabric. Alternatively, they may also wear a loose-fitting t-shirt and a pair of trousers. Then, they either tie the kanga at their waist or their chest. The second piece can be worn as a headscarf, particularly for Muslim women, or, it can be used as a head wrap, shawl or cape.

Kangas are a part of every Swahili person from their birth to their death, which is why they hold more meaning to women in Tanzania.


Kenya is home to 42 tribes and each of them has its own way of dressing. However, there are some common elements in their outfits. They all have either a loincloth or a wrapping skirt, a cloak covering the shoulders and a headdress.

An example would be the attire of the famous Maasai tribe who reside around Kenya and northern Tanzania. Their popularity has made their cultural dress a proud symbol of Kenyan culture.


Their dress comprises three pieces of cotton shuka. Two shukas are tied at the shoulder, each covering the body and the third is wrapped around the shoulder, like a shawl. Or it is placed on the shoulders from the back, like a cloak.

The shuka most commonly comes in red as it is the primary colour of the Maasai. Red is the symbol of earth, freedom, bravery and blood, provided by nature. Shukas may also come in blue and green. Blue represents the sky where heaven and God are and green symbolizes fertility, earth and fortune. More recently, multi-coloured shukas have also emerged. Shukas may be of solid colour or have patterns such as stripes and checkers.

maasai people wearing red and blue shuka in Kenya, East Africa
Maasai in shuka. Notice the man wearing a multicoloured shuka is wearing a headdress made of a lion’s mane. Image Credit: Brainfeed Magazine

Accompanying the shuka are several beaded jewellery that is worn to enhance the aesthetic appeal and to indicate their age. For example, young unmarried women wear flat disc-shaped jewellery around their necks, brides wear long heavy necklaces that extend to their knees, and married women wear long leather earrings. The beads come in different colours and each is an indicator of a clan.

Headdresses are also common in Maasai attire. Women occasionally wear beautiful beaded headdresses. While men wear headdresses as a sign of achievement. A circular headdress made of ostrich feathers indicates that the man fought a lion but didn’t kill it. A headdress made of a lion’s mane indicates that the man fought and killed a lion. These headdresses are worn as a symbol of their courage.

maasai man in ostrich feather headdress in Kenya, East Africa
Maasai man wearing a headdress made of ostrich feathers. Image Credit: AWL

Ethnic groups like the Maasai have been able to preserve their way of dressing but, most people in Kenya have adopted western-styled clothes as their everyday attire in this era.


A piece of clothing that isn’t unique to a particular tribe and that is worn by nearly all Kenyans is the Leso. Leso is simply another name for Kanga. Like the kitenge, leso are also used as an apron, as a headdress, a waist wrap, a body wrap or a baby carrier. Like the Tanzanian kanga, leso also have proverbs written in Swahili. In more recent years, this fabric has been used to tailor shirts, dresses and trousers for men and women. The colourful fabric is definitely one that is admired by all Kenyans, uniting all ethnic groups together.

East African colourful kanga
Leso. Image Credit: Eco-Traveller

Present Day Scenario

western style kitenge dress
Image Credit: Fashion Kitenge

Nowadays, much of the urban population in these countries have adopted western-styled clothes as their everyday attire. But even these contemporary clothes always have a touch of tradition in them, keeping the wearer connected to their culture. This is being achieved by the efforts and creativity of local designers who are creating fusion dresses that are more functional in the urban lifestyle but also express cultural identity. This is done by styling the dress in a way that maintains the required amount of modesty and through the use of typical motifs and colours.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Horn of Africa

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