A Quick Overview of the Kanzu Dress

A Quick Overview of the Kanzu Dress

Kanzus are cream-colored or white garments that are worn by African Great Lakes‘ men. In English, it’s known as a tunic, while in Arab countries, it’s known as the Thawb. Kanzu is a floor-length or ankle-length robe. It is the national costume of Tanzania and the Comoros, where it is termed ‘Kandu’ or ‘thawb.’

In some Muslim coastal areas of Tanzania and Kenya, the robe is also worn. Ugandan men regard it as their most essential garment. Kanzu is a Swahili word that means “robe” or “tunic” in Ganda. The word is used mutually with kaftan in Tanzania.

Ugandan Kanzu

Arab traders introduced the Ugandan/Kiganda kanzu to the Kingdom of Buganda. The kanzu was first worn by Kabaka Ssuuna. The outfit became the formal clothing of all Baganda men after the Kabaka accepted it. The kanzu is a Baganda men’s national costume that has extended from the Baganda people to other ethnic groups. (Unlike Tanzania, Uganda does not have a pan-national male costume.)

It is similar (with some variation) to the thobe from the Middle East. At first, barkcloth was used to make the kanzu. Linen, poplin, cotton, and silk are used to make kanzu nowadays. The most exorbitant are linen kanzus. The design is the most significant distinction between the kanzu and the Arabic thobe.

Maroon embroidery adorns the collar, sleeves, and abdomen of the traditional kanzu. The omulela is the name for the embroidery. Mende, Uganda is the main location for the knitting and production of kanzu.

Baganda man wearing a traditional cloth
Baganda man wearing a traditional cloth

During introduction (Kwanjula) at wedding ceremonies, the kanzu is adorned. It is expected of the groom’s family to wear the kanzu and gift a kanzu to the bride’s family during the Kwanjula.

A blazer, sport coat, or suit jacket is worn with the kanzu. People of note are expected to wear a black bisht with the kanzu. The Gomesi is Baganda’s traditional female dress.

Ugandan dress was included in the controversial film The Last King of Scotland in popular culture.

Tanzanian Kanzu

The kanzu was brought to Tanzania by Arab businessmen and Omani preachers who were doing dawah. The kanzu in Tanzania and the Arabic thobe are similar. The kanzu was originally made of silk. Due to Islamic restrictions on silk clothes, today’s versions are made of polyester or other synthetic textiles that look like silk. The tassel that dangles from the Tanzanian kanzu’s collar is its distinguishing feature.

Before wedding ceremonies, some families perfume the tassel with African perfumes or Arabic attar (oils). A kofia, a little embroidered cap, is always worn with the kanzu.

Merchants sell the Tanzanian kanzu as an Emirati thobe, Emirati thobe, or Yemini dishdasha in the West and many Arab nations. Kanzus of the highest quality are made in the United Arab Emirates. HKT is among the manufacturers. Cheap versions made in China and Saudi Arabia are prevalent.

The kanzu is always worn with a sport coat, blazer or suit jacket by Swahili men in Tanzania and Kenya. A Tanzanian man will wear a suit jacket, kanzu and a kofia (cap) for formal occasions. When attending a black tie function, tribal chiefs wear the kanzu alongside a black bisht. At white tie events, an ivory or white bisht is worn. Merchants in several Western nations sell the bisht as a Saudi Abayah or abaya. According to tradition, a kanzu must be fresh, dry-cleaned, and starched before it is fit for official wear.

A traditional Kofia
A traditional Kofia

The kanzu is Tanzania’s national attire and the formal costume of most of the country’s tribes. The customary clothing for informal occasions is a Saudi-made thobe with a dashiki shirt or mandarin collar and a kofia. Even though the Tanzanian kanzu was influenced by Arab culture, it is worn by people of all faiths, including Muslims, African Jews, Christians, and followers of traditional African religions.

Kenya

Muslims of various tribes wear the Tanzanian Kanzu in Kenya. Christians wear the kanzu for casual occasions, such as church services. But the kitenge shirt or dashiki shirt is worn for formal occasions, such as Christian weddings. A kofia, a tiny cap with the kanzu, is worn by both religious sects. When attending a formal affair in Kenya, Muslim Imams and tribal chiefs are expected to wear the kanzu with a black bisht. Kenya is the only African country without a national costume.

Many Kenyan men dress up for weddings and other formal occasions in European tuxedos or suits. Others have begun to dress in the Agbada, the national attire of Nigeria. In Kenyan Parliament, male members are required to attend sessions dressed in a European-style suit.

West Africa

Clothing worn by largely Sahelian peoples in West Africa is similar though distinct. The Senegalese kaftan and the Boubou are two examples (often worn on official events).

Wedding Attire

In the Great Lakes region, the kanzu is the customary wedding apparel for men. The groom is expected to wear a white kanzu alongside a kofia during wedding rites. A white or black bisht is worn on top of the kanzu by the groom in Kenya and Tanzania. The kanzu is worn with a suit jacket by the groomsmen and other members of the wedding party. The groom wears a suit jacket over the kanzu in Uganda, and the bride wears the gomesi.

The bride wears a West African boubou or a white bridal gown in Kenya and Tanzania. Wedding clothing from the Great Lakes region has become popular among the African diaspora.

Some locals also choose to marry in traditional West African garb (like the dashiki).

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