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Kitenge Fridays: Dress Local, Think Global
By Shwetangna Chakrabarty and Natasha Hacque 01-Nov-19
At Dar es Salaam International Academy, 90% of staff members had clothes stitched from kitenge fabric by local tailors (photo: DIA). ________________________________________________________________________
Over a year ago, a story on BBC Africa caught our attention when it asked, “Is East Africa ready for Kitenge Fridays?” In the place of dress-down Fridays, members of the East African community were recommending that people wear the colorful cotton fabric covered in unique designs and patterns known as kitenge or khanga.
Curiosity piqued, we began to wonder how staff at the Dar es Salaam International Academy might make an impact within the local community by taking up the challenge. Over the next few months, we researched, explored, and developed a deep appreciation for the kitenge fabric and industry.
Produced across the continent in countries such as Nigeria, Congo, Mali, and Tanzania, kitenge represents a legacy of ideas that have traveled the world. The fabric-making technique and original designs were inspired by Indonesian Batik fabric, first brought to the continent by Dutch colonizers in the 15th century.
Although it originated in Asia, this form has survived on the African continent over the past 500 years and today has become the very fabric of Africa. The complex designs on the wax prints capture the creativity, spirit, and culture of many peoples. It could be said, in fact, that kitenge is the most uniting feature on the largest and most diverse continent.
Khanga fabric is a cheaper version of the wax print. Developed in the 19th century, this form of textile carries a stitched-in social message, whether it be against slavery or pollution or one that promotes a proverb or a particular candidate. This fabric is put to uses as diverse as its color combinations: it can serve as bedding, upholstery, curtains, clothes, baby slings, turbans, and in today’s market, high-fashion apparel.
While the African continent continues to capitalize on this fabric, the Chinese have been undercutting and producing similar textiles at much cheaper prices, impacting the small and medium enterprises on the Swahili coast. This impact can be seen in markets in Dar es Salaam, where we have both lived for the past four years. As educators at an international school that promotes international mindedness, we had the idea to promote local industry by taking the Kitenge Friday initiative to our workplace.
As team leaders, we introduced the Kitenge Friday initiative to our colleagues, explaining that they simply had to wear an outfit made from kitenge or khanga. At the same time, we researched small and local businesses that produce and tailor African-made fabrics. To our surprise, not many local people invest in this fabric and we discovered it was challenging to distinguish between local and Chinese products. We also bumped up against the attitude that work attire needs to be more western and less colorful.
For the last eighteen months, secondary teachers at Dar es Salaam International Academy have been embracing this connection on a weekly basis! And as coordinators, we have not missed a Kitenge Friday to date. Consciously wearing the fabric at least once a week has made an impact.
Kitenge symbolizes Africa. It is a classic link to the way people in Africa dress and to their cultural heritage. When foreigners wear kitenge they invoke an attitude of international mindedness in their approach towards the host culture. At the same time, when embraced on a larger scale, their support keeps the fabric alive and thriving, not only in African markets but overseas as well.
Buying local helps the local economy, promotes originality (garments are tailored, not ready-made), lends personality, and promotes creativity. This is an innovative way to celebrate and support the local culture.
We recently conducted a survey to measure the impact of the Kitenge Friday initiative and were taken aback with what we had managed to achieve.
Here are a few insights from our experiments with Kitenge:
A majority of teachers had visited local markets in search of the fabric and in so doing had gained a better understanding of the area and its inhabitants. This pushed them to venture outside of their comfort zones and explore the city beyond the designated “expat area.” While shopping for fabric our teachers managed to learn a few words of Swahili, had held conversations with local vendors, and had come to grasp some nuances of the culture through a better understanding of the local language.
Overall, we managed to contribute US$1,800 towards the local economy over just three months, and we continue to do so.
This initiative has also affected morale within the school community, though it is difficult to measure such intangibles as happiness. Teachers have reflected that working internationally is addictive, explaining that when you move to a foreign country, mundane activities such as shopping are suddenly transformed into adventures. Teachers felt happy participating in this initiative and wearing the bright, colorful, locally sourced and creatively crafted local fabric. l
Shwetangna Chakrabarty is DP Coordinator and Natasha Haque is MYP Coordinator at Dar es Salaam International Academy.
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11/02/2019 - Aljosja
I have taught at DIA and always participated at the Kitenge Friday initiative and I must say it is definitely fun and creates great interaction between local and foreign staff members, and not to forget the students too! I have been wearing African fabrics ever since I started teaching in Africa, many years ago and it makes you blend in more with the community. I can recommend all schools to give it a try!
11/01/2019 - Kihu
What a wonderful initiative! While it is true that things like this cannot be measured on the kind of impact they make, it definitely makes a difference to the wearer as well as promoting international mindedness. I will surely think about what I can do on similar lines in my role as an international educator.