A brief history of the Kanga cloth

Kanga is best described as “the colourful garment you will see in many areas of Tanzania as well as the African great lakes region. It is basically a rectangular piece of pure cotton cloth that has a border all around it and usually printed in bold designs and bright colours. Kanga fabrics come in two quality levels, waxed cloth or synthetic fabrics.”

The Kanga (“Khanga”) cloth today is used for a multitude of things all-round the African continent. We can plot it’s historic use with that of African women using it as a means of daily dress, a sling for childcare and a convenient and comfortable clothing choice. The Kanga cloth existed (and still does), as a site of social and political commentary even outside of its daily use. Historians generally agree that Kanga finds its origins in East Africa, namely in the Swahili culture (Tanzania). Adorned with Kiswahili phrases and proverbs, the kanga played a communicative role over and above it’s everyday use. “Kanga has also been used to gather together people in different campaigns.” The ways in which messages were printed on the fabric worked as a means to spread awareness on different issues whether social or political. What many might find prominent today is the representation of various political parties and leaders on these very fabrics, or kanga-like materials.

Through trade and general interest, the fabric was able to find expression in other African countries (e.g. Malawi and South Africa etc.) Depending on the region, one might find various manifestations of the Kanga fabric and its use. The Kanga has become more than a piece of fabric as history would have it. The designs, phrases and words found on each kanga cloth speak to its roots in culture. In addition, the mere convenience and everyday use of the cloth speaks to the significance of its role in Swahili culture, and many other African cultures familiar with the Kanga.

Representations of the Kanga cloth can be found in various Unknown Union designs. With shirts, pants and hats made from original Kanga fabric. There exists a history behind each piece produced by UU. Stories that have been and continue to breathe, stories of people rooted in culture.

Sources for more information about the Kanga fabric:



(Matimu Rikhotso for Unknown Union)

Check out UU on Instagram: @unknownunion





Buhlebezwe Siwani  


Koketso Mbuli


Sanele Xaba



Last month UU was pleased to welcome the traveling twosome known online as A and A Take The World into the city once again. After an inspiring Creator's Mashup at the Cape Town store and some crafty collaborating in the wings with Jason, the couple are back on the road again -- but not before chatting to Shiba about some of the graces and challenges that come with a life that is neither tethered nor traditional, as well as their latest venture, The Robe Lives. This line of gear for the "streets, the beach and the sheets" is 100% crafted by Zanzibari hands... and 100% of the money you spend to acquire them (after cost of goods of course) goes to TheCup.org. Read on below to get to know Andrew and Adrienne a little better.

Shiba: Southern Africa seems to be taking a lot of your time and attention of late. Is it your first time here in this neck of the woods? 

Adrienne: It’s our second time in South Africa, we spent 3 months here in 2015. We made such great friends here and obviously fell in love with city as a whole, so we came back! 

Andrew: It does indeed, we absolutely love this part of the continent! We spend quite a bit of time traveling through Africa, and this region just has the perfect mix of modern city life with raw endless landscapes and a deeply rooted cultural heritage.

Shiba: Let's chat about your time in Namibia. What were some of your expectations going through and were any of them met? 

Adrienne: It’s funny, usually we do a bit of research before we go somewhere, but this time around we hardly knew where to find Namibia on a map. The one thing we wanted to do was spend time with the Himba people, and that was 100x better than anything we could have imagined. We had an incredible time with the locals and thoroughly loved driving up and down thecountryside. It’s absolutely stunning! 

Andrew: We expected Namibia to be filled with a vast nothingness of beauty along with a dynamic peoples. As we drove across this country we were just blown away by the geological diversity - every hour or two, the fauna, topography, and color palettes morphed. As far as the people; we did miss Windhoek, but we found the rest to be a very laid-back and peaceful culture with many aspects of daily life remaining unchanged for decades for many.

Shiba: So let’s go back to the very beginning… how did this life of travelling full time come to be, and why did you guys decide that this was how you want to spend your lives? 

Adrienne: We like to say that the stars aligned and it happened very quickly, but I think we were subconsciously pushing ourselves out of the USA since the day we met. We have the attention span of toddlers, so staying in one place was never in the cards for us. 

Andrew: Ever since I was a child I had aspirations of seeing the world; mostly inspired by the adventures of one James Bond. Growing up in Jamaica, I think there was about one month a year that just played through every episode on TV - no doubt a tribute to Ian Flemming, who authored the books on our little island. When Adrienne and I met, we had both been abroad quite a bit, and shared a drive to get out there and see what the rest of the world is like. Five years later, my company sold (un-glamorously) and had a six-month ticking clock serving on the transition team before starting a new gig. Adrienne had been working from home for two years and was dying to be released from our little dungeon home in Tribeca -> so we were both on the hunt. With about 6 weeks left until my contract was done, I sat down with Adrienne to review my job offers, quickly rattled off my pluses and minuses, and said; "but honestly, I don't want to do any of this stuff. We're not trapped in NYC, no mortgage, no pets, no jobs we wanted, so why don't I try to slap together some contract work and let's leave NYC and start traveling?" And she said yes, hell yes.

Shiba: That is just too sweet. *sheds tear* Alright! Awkward question time… Travelling this often can be quite a pricey undertaking. How do you manage to work while being so mobile? Or do you somehow combine the two, and if so, how does that work for you? 

Adrienne: Andrew can answer that one as he’s the main breadwinner, but I will say, it would be very difficult to live this way and see as much as we do if we were both working full-time. Planning and organizing our lives is a part-time job in itself, so luckily he can make enough money for the two of us to sustain ourselves, and for me to focus on really living in each place we’re at. 

Andrew: Nowadays there are dozens of careers that easily lend themselves to remote work - ours is advertising. As long as there's electricity, at least 3G internet, and our computers, we can work. We own a small consultancy; an ad agency more or less that's based on NYC. I've worked in advertising and ad technology since 2008, so when we first left in July 2014, I started consulting for a few ad tech companies and managing Facebook Advertising for another - that paid the travel bills. After about 8 months that evolved into less consulting and more managing paid media for other companies - now we're a fully fledged firm that manages marketing on TV, Radio, Print, Mail, Facebook, Instagram, Email, Display Ads, etc. So income and travel are completely unrelated, and in constant conflict :) You'll find us in front of our computers from at least 9-5pm NYC time no matter where in the world we are.

Shiba: What did it feel like when it dawned on you just how big the world really is? Surely that kind of realisation changes you...

Adrienne: That’s a great question. I’d say it makes you feel like a fly, just buzzing around aimlessly and bumping into shit. You feel so so stupid and so insignificant… which is actually the most liberating and humbling realization in my opinion. 

Andrew: Well the easy answer is; how insignificant I am. The sad answer is that knowing and understanding the world and what the human experience really is about is an impossible feat. The exciting answer is that, we know we will always have a new adventure to go on. And the saddest answer is that as we look to chase our dreams and meet all of these incredible people, how many deep relationships and special people are we missing spending time with because we're always gone? Thinking about people we've met in Brazil, Buenos Aires, Bali, Egypt, Zanzibar, Nairobi, Cape Town, Hvar, Mumbai, Delhi (the list goes one), we will never get to know how great of friends we could be. 

Shiba: Ok, so tell us a bit more about The Robe Lives… what’s the story behind this and what are the developments behind bringing the idea to life? 

Andrew: The Robe Lives is the culmination of our shared passions, both long-held and those developed whilst traveling. This company and cause means a lot to us, sitting at the intersection of fashion, dialog, self-expression, and charity. I'll answer this question in a roundabout way. Our garments are made from fabrics that will light up your brain - if you choose to wear one of our pieces you're going to make a statement, and you're going to feel like royalty - who doesn't want experience a long train of vibrant fabric tracing your every step? Inevitably, someone will ask you about the piece, and you'll tell them what it is and the brand name sure, but you'll also tell them why you bought it. You bought it because 100% of the profits from your purchase is given to help at risk young women living in poverty - both keeping them in school and educating them on sexual and reproductive health AND rights. When young women living in slums get their period, they often don't know what's happening to them, they're embarrassed, and in some cases shunned and even kicked out of their homes. A gap in science education and access to menstrual sanitary options causes many girls to miss a week of school each month and be very susceptible to HIV, STIs, and teen pregnancy. Each robe purchased will enroll one girl in this program, which gives her a menstrual cup that she can use for ten years, the education program, a mentor, and a safety hotline. Each robe purchased can save a life, each robe could be granting opportunity for a girl to chase her dreams.

 Shiba: Do you plan to make other items of clothing in the same way?

Adrienne: I’d love to! We have some collaborations in the works (wink, wink), but for now, we’re focusing on robes from Zanzibar. 

Andrew: We are focused on robes. The world is full of incredible textiles that are just dying to be "robified." What you're more likely to see from us in addition to robes would be other projects that can marry together artistry, opening dialog, self expression, and charity. For example - In January we threw an art party at Unknown Union with you and I'd guess we had around 200 people throughout the day. What if we kept the booze free (we'll have sponsors), but just charged R50 for a wrist band. Maybe we'd get 100 people instead of 200, but that's still R5,000 that we could have raised and donated to charity in a day. How many kids in Cape Town could we put through good schools if we did that every month?

Shiba: How does one take the step from being a tourist to feeling a deeper connection to the people in a new place? Are there any tips and tricks you might have for travelers making their way in the world? 

Adrienne: We do our best to rent houses in neighborhoods rather than hotels or hostels in touristy areas. We use Instagram to reach out to local people for tips and advice on how to do their hometown/city/country the best way. Often times that leads to us hanging out with that person, eating at their homes, meeting their families, learning firsthand how they live. I think the difference between most travelers and us, is we put in a lot of time and effort and inconveniences to see things from a locals set of eyes. Lastly, I believe it takes a certain personality to actually be welcomed to a locals level of living. There’s a lot of people out there that force themselves into a locals life, but they’ll never actually feel the genuine moments because they’re too busy taking photographs or focusing on what’s so different between themselves and their surroundings. 

Andrew: I think we're constantly trying to get better and better at this ourselves! It's much easier some places than others, but here's what's working for us.

  • Instagram - find a cool restaurant, bar, or event in that town that you like, then go to the hashtag or checkin location and search for a picture of someone who looks like they want to be your friend. Click to their profile, see what they're into - if it's a match, send them a message and instantly you'll have a local friend, with a ton of things in common who might have time to show you around.
  • Make friends with bartenders and waitrons - They are usually the heart of the city and will definitely be able to give you great recommendations on where they actually hang out.

Shiba: Given everything going on in the States at the moment, including certain prejudices, the refugee protests and new restrictions around travel; putting yourself on a different patch of earth becomes a very loaded experience, especially when what you look like can determine how people treat you depending on where you are at any given time. What have you felt about home, or the idea of home, and being so far away from everything you know? 

Adrienne: I think it’s pretty easy to say that we’re mortified by what’s happening at home. I wavier between feeling massive amounts of guilt for not being home and fighting the good fight, and massive amounts of relief for not being home and having to look certain types of people in the eye every day. We were actually home when the orange man was elected and I can say with pure confidence that we were treated more like foreigners in our native land than anywhere else we’ve been. Obviously, Andrew has certain characteristics that are similar to the quintessential “terrorist”, but it still made me sick to my stomach seeing the way perfect strangers looked at us or treated us. In short, I’m embarrassed and sad to be American today. Luckily, with technology what is today, there’s a lot you can do from abroad, so we’ll continue to make phone calls, write letters, emails, etc. I don’t think you’ll see us residing stateside as long as the toddler is in the White House. (knocking on wood so hard right now) 

Andrew: Ah... I don't think there's enough battery in my computer to answer that fully :) Look, I'm half black, I've dealt with prejudices my whole entire life, and for the past two years, I've had a massive beard on my face and little kids call me Osama. I'm sure I get judged from all angels all the time in every country. But when we were in the states in Nov, it was different. It's different as I'm actually afraid someone might walk up to me and punch me or stab me in some totally misguided "Go back to your country, Muslim!" rage (I grew up Christian, born in New York, I just happen to be brown and look like a character they saw on TV). That fear I have is REAL, whether or not the reality of it happening to me is likely, the fear is there, and that's all they need to have already won. The "They" I speak of, well that's a whole separate conversation.

The way I now feel about looking the way I do and being in a small town in the US is actually how I imagine most women feel every single night they walk somewhere alone. We need to fight the bigotry and divisions that exist in the US - and to be fair, every country we've been in experiences this in one way or another. It seems our brains have developed to be better at counting the few things we have apart, than realizing how much we have in common. Empathy is hard work for us humans. The concept of Ubuntu hit us so strongly a few years back, so we put in every effort to share these ideas and bring people together in their common union.


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Unknown Union was set to close off SA Menswear Week 2017, a tremendous task for any brand. The normalcy of process at each fashion week is what most show goers would expect without much left to be said. Founder and CEO, Jason Storey chose a common, but directed route this time around. A conceptual approach. Eighteen individuals that had a story to tell, most of them non-models. Stories of awareness, community, expression, and culture. Voices of everyday persons who thrive in pioneering their own lanes. A multidisciplinary collective, brought together by one brand, Unknown Union.

The ‘models’ consisted of individuals with a diverse set of interests, all adorned in Unknown Union apparel. Teachers, photographers, musicians, visual artists, radio personalities, chefs, film makers and environmental activists to name a few. Each person connected to the other, through community and expression. The very last people you would expect to be seeing on a ramp, which is precisely the point. Unknown Union is committed to storytelling and a collective expression through their design and interaction. Paying homage to what has already existed in neighbourhoods, villages, classrooms, and conversations. A celebration of what it means to be human, in the most potent way.

Storyteller and spoken word poet, Adrian “Diff” Van Wyk opened the show with a piece detailing the history of a people. Gliding down the ten-pillar stacked ramp, he spoke into the audience whilst raking up heartfelt reactions. Songwriter and rapper, Patty Monroe followed suit with her twenty-sixteen single ‘Castles’, an ode to youth and freedom. To close off the show was rapper Uno July, with an offering on hustler’s ambition and dream chasing. In between was every other individual making their statement clear on the runway. Crowd reactions strengthened with each person starting their walk. Every individual was a story that someone in the audience could recognise. Each person was able to offer something that mirrored the expression of community and everyday people. Anyone sitting in the crowd could see a glimpse of themselves on the ramp.

The show was a commentary on humanhood. The way we live it in its most natural form. A testament to the fact that we exist in a collective. However unknown to the next person, human stories are diverse, detailed, and ultimately similar. The collaboration between Unknown Union and these eighteen individuals became a vehicle for the delivery of a subtle, yet fundamental message. Like the Chokwe designs on UU t-shirts, inspired by the cultural groups in central and southern Africa, and the workmanship of the Basotho blankets that inspired the well-known range of authentic Basotho print UU jackets, these are the stories of the people. Stories that speak of culture, advancing sustainability, and the authenticity of humanhood. Stories that are paramount and foremost about being human. 

(Matimu Rikhotso for Unknown Union)


Some images below. Check out more on the UU Instagram page: @unknownunion


Uno July


Sanele Xaba  


Theodore Afrika  


Koketso Mbuli  


Akuol De Mabior


Adrian "Diff" Van Wyk


Catherine Grenfell


Philani Sikhakhane  

On Peace, Rain and Plenty -- King Moshoeshoe and the Founding of a Nation

[If you missed the first part of this series, click here.]

The Sotho people lived in Southern Africa for hundreds of years prior to King Moshoeshoe’s reign; however he is considered the father of modern day Lesotho as, under his rule, the nation was consolidated into a governing kingdom with established borders.   

Moshoeshoe began his rise to prominence as the local chief of a small village.  Legend suggests that his mentor, Chief Mohlomi, shared an ominous vision of an embattled and war-torn era that would appear like a “great red cloud descending over the south”.  Heeding this warning, Moshoeshoe led his people to Butha-Buthe to establish a mountain defense. This was followed by a second mountain stronghold at Theba-Bosiu years later which proved a successful defense and military advantage to the kingdom.  Neither the Boers invading from the South, nor the Zulu King, Shaka (encroaching from the East) were able to overcome Moshoeshoe’s powerful combination of militant strength and tactful political compromise.    

Basotho blanket commemorating the ostrich feathers

Basotho blanket commemorating the ostrich feathers

According to folklore, at one point King Moshoeshoe learned of King Shaka’s plan to wage war against Moshoeshoe and claim his lands.  Moshoeshoe paid homage to the Zulu king by sending gifts, with plumes of ostrich feathers chief among them.  Pleased with the gesture, Shaka relented and Moshoeshoe demonstrated that even the mightiest and most unyielding hands could be restrained by little more than the weight of a feather.    

In another anecdote, Moshoeshoe’s grandfather was slaughtered on his land and dragged away by a raiding party of cannibals.  Instead of avenging his grandfather’s death with violence, Moshoeshoe redirected these energies toward a higher purpose for the sake of his people. Moshoeshoe gave the cannibals cattle and land, and to prevent any of his people taking revenge on his behalf he performed customary burial rites on the bellies of the cannibals declaring them the living embodiment of his grandfather’s burial ground. When death could have been dealt, Moshoeshoe turned fierce raiders into loyal patrons and increased his kingdom in both number and strength.  In doing this, Moshoeshoe once again invoked “Balimo ba hao u ba hopole” and put his people’s interests far above his own.

Next:  Spreading a Blanket over Lesotho 

The Once and Future King

In southern Africa, shweshwe is a well-known fabric with a very complex and interesting history; just one of the reasons why this fabric can be found in so many of our pieces. Lesser known is the fact that the name itself comes from the much revered Sotho warrior, Moshoeshoe I, so named due to the swiftness with which he would engage his enemies.  Like shweshwe, the Basotho blankets traditionally worn in Lesotho identify a people tied to this great legacy.   These fabrics are woven into a large part of daily life and are also embraced as a symbol of status because of him. Now, before we get into the story of the Basotho blankets themselves, it’s necessary to look at the origin story of Moshoeshoe I, which is as important now, as ever.  

While Moshoeshoe was still a young boy he was known by his friends and family as Lepoqo or Latlama.  One story tells us that, as Lepoqo began to grow into a young man, his grandfather, Peete, took special note of his fiery personality and propensity for danger.  Hoping that an equally strong personality could help to mentor Lepoqo as he transitioned from a young boy into a man, Peete took him to see one of the most well-respected philosophical leaders of the time, Chief Mohlomi.  Mohlomi was known throughout the land for his steady hand, message of unification amongst various factions and tribes and a belief that such unification could be realized only through peace and diplomacy.  We are told that Mohlomi immediately recognized Lepoqo's innate leadership qualities.  He embraced the boy as would a father, and gave Lepoqo an earring, a shield and a spear as symbols of the great power he would one day come to wield.  It was during this time that Lepoqo asked him a question, the answer to which formed the foundation of Lepoqo's future leadership style:  Lepoqo asked, “setlhare sa ho haha motse ke se fe?", which translates to "what is the medicine to building a powerful empire?”  Chief Mohlomi responded with his characteristic wisdom, “the only true medicine is the heart.”  And with that, he provided Lepoqo with a list of commandments that the boy, who would one day rule, would go on to practice throughout his life:

  • “O ba rate” – Love them: Love breeds compassion and generosity. “Further, love promotes peace. Even the act of fighting, when governed by love, is not just a mere fight; it is a means of seeking understanding. ”
  • “O ba tsebe” – Know them: In knowing the people, this wise man was alluding to the importance of appreciating that every individual is different and needs to be treated as such. As far as Mohlomi was concerned, this appreciation was fundamental in establishing true justice. (For example, fining a rich man six cows might seem like a slap on the wrist, while to a poor man, this would be a devastating blow!)
  • “O ba nyalle” – Marry for them: Keeping in mind that Chief Mohlomi’s advice to Lepoqo was the promotion of peace and love, this advice underscored that even the most intimate and private actions -- here, marriage -- should be undertaken with the kingdom’s wellbeing in mind.
  • “Balimo ba hao u ba hopole kamehla” – Remember your ancestors, always: The idea embodied in this statement is that one has to believe in a power greater than ourselves as human beings. Acknowledging those who lived and died before us also enables us to constantly be grateful for our own existence.

With these, Lepoqo became Moshoeshoe I, the legendary leader we have come to know today.  

Next:  On Peace, Rain and Plenty -- King Moshoeshoe and the Founding of a Nation