By Rupal Ramesh Shah
Tanzanian fabric is colorful and vibrant. Eye-catching. Growing up in Moshi, Tanzania, I always admired the colorful clothing that is part of the Swahili culture we grew up in. Admittedly, I didn’t appreciate the fabric as a child as much as I do as an adult. After living in the U.S. for the past 20 years, I now have a great appreciation.
There are two styles of fabric that are well known throughout the country, khangas and kitenges. Khangas are made of cotton, are rectangular shaped, and have a moral saying/quote printed on them. The statements are often inspirational, treating themes of love, God, and friendship. Kitenges are made of cotton as well, although thicker, and often come in three pieces. Both styles are commonly worn by women throughout the country, and at times utilized as slings to carry babies.
I would like to tell you about three women of South Asian origin, specifically Indian origin, and how we came together for a beautiful collaboration that involved color, happy faces, hard work, and khangas and kitenges. The three women are LalitaBen, Pooja, and myself. We have walked different paths in our lives, and covered a lot of geographic ground, but nonetheless collaborated on a project that was very meaningful to me.
In 2014, I traveled to Tanzania for a public health internship. While there, I was determined to have some clothes stitched with Tanzanian fabric. LalitaBen, my childhood seamstress, a middle-aged woman in 2014, agreed to work on the project. Her parents had migrated from Gurarat, India, in the early 1900s. She was born and raised in Arusha, Tanzania, and after her marriage moved to Moshi. As a kid, I remember she was considered the best seamstress in town. She did all her work from home. I was honored that she agreed to work on my outfits as an adult. I took all my designs to her, along with various lengths of khangas and kitenges, and within days, she had produced an amazing collection of dresses, skirts, and blouses.
In the spring of 2021, I traveled to Clemson, South Carolina, where I reached out to my family friend, Pooja, who had started a career as a photographer. Pooja was born in the state of Maharashtra, India, and was adopted by her American parents when she was 20 months old. She grew up in Clemson, South Carolina. Her work is phenomenal – she has an amazing eye for colors, angles, and poses. We spent a couple of days together, and she worked with me to take pictures of the outfits that LalitaBen had stitched in 2014. Within days, Pooja produced an artful portfolio of pictures that showcase the fabric that was a part of my colorful Tanzanian childhood.
As you review these pictures, I hope you’ll admire the beautiful colors that are such a vital part of Swahili culture, the beautiful outfits crafted by LalitaBen and the artistry of Pooja’s photographs.
To view more of Pooja’s photographs: photographybypooja.com.
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager.