Mshanga interrogates nuances in gender, generation, and poverty. It tells (and was inspired by) the story of Orupa Mchikirwa, my mother’s grandmother-and hence my great grandmother-from whose house my mother grew up in for most of her childhood years. Orupa was a fairly poor woman surrounded by many grandchildren, relatives’ children and some of her own children still living under her. Because of having to sacrifice all her food to the children, there was always very little food left for her to eat, and she was therefore perpetually hungry. She used to, very tightly and securely, tie around her abdomen what in Pare (my tribal language) we call ‘mshanga’–which is basically cutout pieces of an old rug, followed by an old Khanga (traditional Tanzanian fabric)- so as to distract herself from being hungry, and to retain some energy to continue farming (her major activity and only source of food).
The concept behind ‘Mshanga’ is simple really—the stomach, for our bodies, is the center of equilibrium, and normally loosens up when we are hungry. So, in order to retain strength (when hungry), it helps to have it tightly and securely tied. Traditionally, in Tanzania, women tie ‘Mshanga’ (as ritual) around their tummies when they are bereaved. And, historically, in some traditional African societies, the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, involves a ritual that simulates warfare. Boys enter into the forest through a gate, expected to return through the same gate as men carrying with them ‘the secrets of the forest’ in which one of them is sacrificed. In the meantime, every woman with a son in the forest has to tie a ‘Mshanga’ around their bellies, hoping her son ‘returns’. If their sons return home safe, they will have a celebration with singing and cheering whereby the ‘Mshanga’ is untied. If the forest ‘swallows’ her son, the ‘Mshanga’ continues to prop the mother’s tummy as it helps the forest maintain the silence.