When my grandmother sent for me, I knew whatever she wanted to show or tell me was of importance and it couldn’t wait. Once at her place I was fed to the brim as usual,you know how grandmas are right? Done, she called me in her room that had this warmth and always felt like home. Next to her bed was the decorative mat, mkeka wa chole.
“Take it” she said.
Puzzled, I asked why. I knew I was supposed to be given one on my wedding and so i couldn’t understand why she was giving me one then.
“You are different and you will need it. And maybe when the day comes, I might not be here to hand this to you”, she said in a frail loving voice.
Baffled, I sat next to her on her king size bed draped with silky sheets.
“I know you already know how important the mkeka is. And I want you to pass this down to your children’s children because we are living in a world that is evolving as the sun rises.”
As of this very moment, as I write this, very few of us do possess a mkeka and we all know the cultural significance it has.
Mkeka’s importance in Swahili culture is also embedded with Islamic/Arabic culture. Mkeka is a woven mat, mostly used during the early days made from an indigenous palm tree found at the coastal parts of Africa. It comes from two Swahili words woven together- mke (woman) kaa(have a seat). Mkeka is mostly used as floor mat but it has other many usage such as wall hangings, table, prayer mats and on beds. But the most cardinal use is when one dies and it is used to wrap the body, then taken to grave.
Back in the day, a newly wed woman would be given one as a present for her new house. A brief reminder of the mkeka from grandmothers and aunts to her would go like this; “Mkeka huu, wafungua kwako, kama mama wa nyumba. Mkeka huu mtaswalia, mtakalia, mtalalia, mtapigana juu yake, mtapendana juu yake na
wakati wako ukifika wa kutokua mja hapa duniani, utakupeleka mpaka kwenye kaburi lako. Mtunze mkeka huu Kwani ndio ufunguo wa nyumba yako“(This mat will be of great significance to you as the mother of the house. You will play and pray on it,sleep on it,sit on it,cry on it, fight and love each other on it. And when your time to depart this world comes,this mat will carry you to the grave. Take good care of it as it is the key to your home).
These words are just an echo of what you’ve always known your entire life but now are transformed from being words to reality of the life one is about to embark after that day.
Mkeka nowadays has flourished from being a palm tree mat to sisal, string, clothes and many other materials. You will always find a mkeka in a mosque, the only thing separating the cold floor and one’s feet in the house of God.
Creativity has also played a huge part in mkeka evolution. You will get baskets, fancy wall hangings, table covers etc at coastal markets and other cultural shops. You will find it in Swahili houses but not on the floor. It will be wrapped somewhere in the corner, only used when necessary.
Mwacha mila ni mtumwa – A Swahili proverb.
So get your mkeka, be it for decoration, or any other personal use, beautify and preserve the culture.