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Mijikenda women in frontline to preserve traditional hando dress

By Philip Mwakio | August 21st 2021

Mauna Keah Chibopo, wearing a Mijikenda traditional dress known as 'hando', at Rabai in Kilifi County. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Mauna Chibogo is regarded as a hando queen in her village of Ruruma in Rabai Constituency, Kilifi County.

She wears the short cotton ropes with pride.

At the age of 69, Chibogo is fashionable and stylish. She fell in love with hando, a rare traditional attire tied to the waist using a string, since she was a toddler.

“I started wearing the hando when I was 15 years old. I have become accustomed to this type of dress and have several of them at home,’’ she says, unwilling to abandon it as her fashion wear.

She says elderly women in the community prefer hando because it gives them the feeling of some authority in the society in which they live.

“The other dress is bandika which is less special and mostly woven together from coloured pieces of cloth. Its wearers like donning it while at home,’’ she said.

The bandika, she says, is not a dress of choice for the traditional Mijikenda women. It is worn by girls or students performing folk songs.

“One will need to pull threads along the grains of the fabric in one direction to fray it. It is then soaked in water, then pounded against a tough surface, mostly stone or wood and sometimes in a mortar and pestle to soften the thread strands.

“Thereafter the tangled threads are combed through to straighten them using a wide-toothed wooden comb (mkowa),” explains Cidi Kumbatha, a Giriama who admires traditional wear.

Owing to its many strips of cloth, one has to take time to wash the skirt. Previously, it would be beaten with stone to clean it but now the wearers use soap. It has to be hung to dry which takes hours because it is bulky. The traditional skirt enhances the shape of the wearer.

 'Hando'. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Chibogo says that when growing up, demand for the attire was high but of late it is only worn by women during special occasions like traditional weddings or functions with a traditional theme.

Dance costume

There is very little activity nowadays unlike before when we would be called upon to prepare several Hando dresses and be paid for weaving them,’’ she says.

Rahma Kache Kazungu Yeri, a Mombasa trader dealing in trendy wear admires the old and new.

“I was taught how to make a hando by grandmother and have never missed those special occasions in my rural home where I discard the trendy wear for the hando, the mother of three says.

Bandika type of hando is gaining traction as a dance costume and is thus made slightly shorter to allow for free movement while dancing.

“There are no restrictions on who can wear the hando among the ladies and girls. But there are guidelines on what colours are permitted for certain age groups,’’ Chibogo said.

The blue cloth hando whose colour is associated with ‘spirits’ and only worn by ‘women who possess spirits’. The one of mixed colours is made out of leso fabric but shorter ones like mini skirts are popular with the young girls.

Hando wearing was never complete without accompanying adornments.

Women spotting 'handos' dancing with tourists during the Mekatilili wa Menza festival in Malindi, Kilifi County. [Robert Menza, Standard]

These include aluminum bangles or bracelets, tsango, a coiled aluminum wire worn around the arm below the elbow by mostly girls and those who have not been married.

Lawyer and Mijikenda tradition scholar, Joseph Karisa Mwarandu says the dress was common till the 1950s. He said it is however facing extinction due to modern and trendy attire.

Mwarandu says that when the community chose to fully embrace religion - Christianity and Islam, there was little interest in adapting to several cultural traditions.

“We have seen many of the traditional cultural practices like wearing of the hando, kikoi and even preparation of some traditional foods take a back seat due to modernity,’’ says Mwarandu, a founder member of the Malindi District Cultural Association (MDCA) that seeks to promote and conserve Mijikenda cultures.

Last week, a dozen foreign women tourists on holiday at the Kenyan Coast took part in a street carnival to celebrate Mekatilili Memorial Day whose climax was an exhibition of the hando.

Women donned handos as they danced to the soothing melodies of traditional Mijikenda folk songs like mwanzele and mabumbumbu. 

Kumbatha, a self-proclaimed hando ambassador is sparing no effort to help save this age-old tradition among the Mijikenda women.

“Anyone who discards his or her tradition and culture is a slave,’’ says Kumbatha, former Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) deputy managing director and former Kenya Airways marketing manager. 

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