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Decades on, Coastal women still use leso to share age-old wisdom

 Most people choose lesos dependong on the idioms, proverbs and quotes inscribed in them (Photo: Robert Menza)

It is a must-have item that lights up the faces of grandmothers, aunties and mothers whenever they are gifted two or more, because one is never enough.

At the Coast, the leso - a colourful fabric also known as kanga - represents culture and respect for women and is a preferred attire donned in funerals, weddings, dowry negotiation ceremonies, religious and even political events.

In communities such as Luo, Luhya and Kisii, mothers-in-law are given a leso as a token of appreciation after shaving a newborn baby.

The leso is made from a simple and light cotton fabric, which is ideal for the hot Coastal weather.

Its origins trace back to the Portuguese who settled in Mombasa and made it their main trading centre for spices, cotton and coffee.

But what makes this cultural attire stand out are the idioms, proverbs and quotes inscribed on the leso, which make them fun to shop and wear.

Often, when purchasing a leso, the first thing buyers check are the unique floral decorations and messages written on them.

Coastal women have been known to wear the fabric to pass wisdom hidden in encrypted messages that give warning, advice or even subtle talk-back between adversaries.

 Most women use lesos to pass messages (Photo: Robert Menza)

For instance, a woman aggrieved by what other women in the neighbourhood are saying behind her back would wear a leso written Kila siku kikao (Each day is full of gossip) or Tafuteni ukumbi (look for a big hall to continue talking about me).

“A woman who is tired of being tormented by her sisters-in-law would pass this message to them: Nilimpenda mwenyewe sikulazimishwa (I loved him willingly and was not forced).

“On the other hand, a sister would alert her brother saying: “Kosa kazi ujue tabia za mkeo” (Fall into unemployment and that is when you will know your wife’s true character).

The sister-in-law would then respond by donning one with a message saying: “Paka mapepe usimwachie kipambe” (Do not give space to a bad person),” says Hawa Hassan, a resident of Likoni.

For a wife out to safeguard her marriage, she would walk around in a leso sending a message to a woman suspected to be having an affair with the husband reading, “VIP ni mimi nafasi yangu” (I am the VIP and this is my space), while her rival would respond saying “Sitokula gizani kwa kumuogopa jirani” (I will not eat in the darkness for fear of a neighbour).

In relationships, some men gift their wives with lesos to give them assurance of their love.

The lesos would bear messages such as “Uwanja ni wako, usiwe an mafadhaiko” (The field is yours to rule, don’t be afraid), “Tabasamu yako, pumbazo la roho yangu” (your smile hypnotises my heart), or even “Mwenye radhi hasumbuki” (He who is satisfied does not struggle).

One can also use the fabric to thank his or her mother with a message reading, “asante mama kwa malezi mema” (Thank you, mother, for the good upbringing) or “mama hamsahau mwanawe” (A mother does not forget her child).

Lesos, like Swahili songs, have for over a century immensely contributed to the enhancement of Swahili literature through idioms, proverbs and quotes.

According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Assistant Director, Coast region in charge of antiquities and monuments, Athman Hussein, messages printed on lesos have strengthened the Swahili language through the addition of contemporary proverbs and quotes.

The writings have spiced up the Swahili language and made it relevant and appealing to modern users.

 Lesos were used by some women to seduce men (Photo: Robert Menza)

Tourism consultant Charlotte Mwakidimi, who grew up in Mombasa, says the lesos worn by women at the Coast are an underrated tradition.

“They represent culture and respect for women. They are used at different occasions, be it in funerals, weddings and during dowry negotiations, and religious events,” says Mwakidimi.

“Even in political functions where politicians are seeking political mileage, they create certain messages to their advantage have them printed and given out to their supporters to wear,” she adds.

Not only that, the leso makes for a baby carrier used by mothers. By strapping her baby on her back using a leso, a mother is able to carry on her daily chores with comfort while assured of her baby’s safety.

“In some instances, a woman’s wealth was measured by the number of lesos she had in her possession. Lesos also enhance femininity in the women wearing them.

“When a woman in her home wants to seduce her man, she would wrap it around and walk in front of him,” says Mwakidimi.

Despite ever-changing fashion trends, the leso has never lost its appeal. A spot check by The Standard at ‘Mali Ya Francis’ located along the busy Biashara street at Mwembe Tayari in Mombasa’s Central Business District (CBD) reveals high daily sales of lesos.

“We have lesos in their thousands, alongside kitenge attire, deras, kikoi wear and the popular Maasai shukas. But lesos are fast-moving products,” Ngaruiya Ndegwa, a shop assistant says.

Ndegwa says since the shop opened for business in the early 80s, there has been a tremendous sale of lesos that have now been turned into shirts, skirts or even dresses.

Abdalah Barisa, a shop attendant who has been in the business for close to two decades, says clients often coin their own messages, which are then printed on the lesos.

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