The story of the leso is fairly well-documented. There was once a kerchief, something like a bandana, its roots—and routes—traceable to the Portuguese. Six were stitched together to create the leso. Then later, elsewhere, it became the kanga, the Swahili word for the guinea fowl. The kanga had found an echo in the guinea fowl. Although one was an animal and the other a vibrant cotton cloth, both hearkened to each other in the vibrancy of their patterns, their ostentatious nature, and their ability to turn a head or two wherever, and whenever, they passed.
To some, it remained the leso. To others, it became the kanga. But whether leso or kanga, this piece of cloth has become uniquely associated with East African womanhood. It is both whimsical and functional, perhaps embodying that ideal of high art: where an item is deemed fit both to be admired and to be put to use.
And how women have found many uses for it. It is the gift you give to a new mother to wrap around her belly after giving birth; the cloth in which you swaddle a new-born baby; when you need to clean the house; when you need a towel; when you need a curtain, a bed-spread, a scarf, a shawl, a handkerchief, something to lighten up a dull room or outfit.
In East Africa, and especially along the Swahili Coast, the leso occupies a special place. Ndinda Kioko, writing in The Trans-African, recognizes the leso as “a body of work that holds collective memory and shapes the narrative of the East African woman.”
What better way to remember a beloved grandmother, Ndinda asks, if not through the lesos she lived in, lived with? What better way to honour her memory, and in turn, her memories, if not through wearing the lesos she wore?
Ndinda also recognizes that the leso is “present in the everyday,” therefore speaking to the radical possibilities that are etched into women’s objects of everyday use. However ordinary and banal the leso seems to be, it is a way through which women can practice agency in their personal lives, thus writing themselves, literally, into the social history of a place.
To see a leso, then, is to see a woman as she wants to be seen. It is to see her choices, preferences, and moods—to see her return the gaze.
But this is just one story of the leso. It is not the complete story.
The leso as morality compass
As multi-functional as it is, and as subversive the ends to which it can be put, the leso also has a history of policing the bodies of girls and women.
Often, my mothers, aunties, grandmothers, and just about every woman who was near and dear to me threw it towards me, asking me to cover up my body. This chorus of women asking me to cover up would crescendo as my adolescent body started to change. To me, the leso was no longer just a versatile item of clothing lying around the house.
Instead, it became one of the tools used to rein in my body.
And yet, I was luckier than most. I was a slight little thing and could often escape being shouted at, to throw a leso over my body. My female friends and cousins who were larger in frame did not have it as easy. I remember watching my childhood best friend burst into tears, sent back to her room by her mother to find a leso to drape over her fashionable hipster trousers. I remember my cousins and I at one of our big sisters’ traditional wedding ceremony, and one of our particularly strict aunties forcing us to wear lesos over our new funky dresses, so that our fathers and uncles and grandfathers would not be offended by the sight of our bare legs.
This struck me. It became clear that this imposition of the leso was not even for ourselves, for our comfort, for our own gazes. It was outward in stance, it sought to make other people comfortable.
And so I developed a love-hate relationship to the leso.
The wedding episode was particularly painful, after all. My cousins and I had spent weeks agonizing over the exact design of matching dresses to wear to the wedding, only to spend the entire day hiding the dresses under what we thought were drab lesos.
The policing of female bodies through the leso plays into long-standing ideas about how the female body should present itself in public. In ‘Keep Your Eyes off My Thighs’: A Feminist Analysis of Uganda’s ‘Miniskirt Law,’ Dr. Sylvia Tamale locates the “idea of objectifying women as sexual bodies and ‘seeing’ their nakedness as immoral in the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam. She introduces the idea of ‘shameful sexuality,’ arguing that female bodies were burdened with this sexuality in a way that male bodies were not, thus perpetuating “the logic that women’s ‘seductive bodies’ had to be covered in public to protect men from ‘impure thoughts’ and the corruption of their morals.”
Little wonder, then, that as soon as we could, we ditched the lesos.
As soon as we left home, we became like our brazen single aunties, walking around leso-less, reveling in the fact that we were too grown to be admonished into wrapping lesos around ourselves. And yet, even this rebellion felt illicit, with guilt written all over it.
And then it became a pop culture product
Soon, ‘African print’ became cool. Not just the leso, but the kitenge, kikoi, ankara, kente and just about anything that could be called African print. The African print was on runways, magazine spreads, and on the covers of Chimamanda Adichie’s novels.
There was the sense that the leso had become funky, something that we could fit into our ideas of who were and who we were becoming. And the world around us, it seemed, was coming alive to the sartorial possibilities of the leso, and by extension, the African print. Was it possible, we thought, that this piece of clothing which had limited us so during our childhood and adolescent years was actually a way of asserting ourselves, a way of expressing ourselves and, increasingly, of performing our identities?
It took us a while to reconcile our childhood aversion to the leso with its increasing popularity. To learn that we could learn to love, on our own terms, the leso on our bodies. To love its print. Its patterns. The wit of the words lining its edges. The relationships it nurtured. The memories it preserved. How it rooted us.
A big part of reclaiming the leso from our childhood had to do with growing up and having the room—or, at the very least, more room—to make choices for ourselves and our bodies. We began to wrap our minds around the complexities of the leso, learning that there was something that the leso was trying to tell us. Namely, that it was possible for two opposing truths to occupy the same place, that it was possible to understand that even though the leso often had us bend to the dictates of the patriarchal gaze, it had also allowed us to take our place in the collective history of East African women.
So we allowed ourselves to fall in love with the leso. It had the thrill of a new love affair.
Perhaps we overdid it, preaching the virtues of the leso with the zeal of a new convert. We made mini-skirts and crop tops out of it; we wore it as head-wraps; we made curtains out of it; we always kept a spare one in our bags, understanding, as our mothers had, that there were few instances where a leso would not come in handy.
Granted, it was complicated, this piece of cloth in which we wrapped ourselves. But we figured that it was complicatedly ours—a piece of heritage we could call our own. Ours to own.