As you walk the streets of Karagwe, Tanzania, you'll see women, mostly of child-bearing age and older, wearing beautifully designed fabrics. Khongas, as the native Tanzanians call them, are rectangularly shaped, brightly colored fabrics about four yards long. They sell for 18,000 shillings (6 dollars) at the local market; 15,000 if you have a Tanzanian friend with you to haggle.
But these khongas aren't just used as women’s clothing. You’d be surprised at the various creative ways women utilize these fabrics. In the mother/child department of the hospital, you'll see lines of mothers waiting patiently with their children for their usual check-ups. These mothers carry their toddlers on their backs using the konghas. A woman will bend forward at a 90 degree angle with the child resting on her back, sling the fabric over her head and around the child’s bottom, and tie the corners up above her breasts. The child can rest calmly and comfortably in the khonga, close to his or her mother.
As you walk from this department to the antenatal section of the hospital, you'll see more women lined up waiting for their appointments, but these women use the khongas in a different way. Pregnant women are required to bring with them two khongas to their antenatal check-ups. They are instructed to lay out each khonga on the examination table as a sort of “sterile field”. When the khongas are not being used as a covering for the table, they wear one around their shoulders and one around their growing bellies.
Within the local market, you'll see women using their khongas to hold groceries such as fruits and vegetables. They can tie one end around their necks and the other around their waists, with items held snugly in the middle. This strategy leaves their hands open to carry more groceries.
With their unique patterns and exquisite colors, these khongas are more than just a fashion statement for the females of Tanzania. They are a tool used to make several aspects of the women's lives easier. From carrying babies to holding grocery items, khongas are an environmentally friendly – and stylish – alternative to paper and plastic.
There were no malls, clothing stores, or Walmart Super Centers where we were in Tanzania. The female population purchases their favorite fabric from the “market” and have the local tailors transform the fabric into unique and beautiful conservative clothing. Our group was fortunate to meet with a tailor and have a variety of articles made from our fabric purchases from the local outdoor market. Some of the items included: wrap-around skirts, dresses, large and small bags, make-up bags, pillow cases, lap-top cases, and aprons to name just a few.
About the authors: Lisa Tondora '16 and Haley Hall '17, are Misericordia University Nursing students who are participating in a two-week service trip to Karagwe, Tanzania.
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