The Chitenge – A Zambian fashion essential

When I lived in the more rural area of Eastern Province in Zambia there was a nearby hospital that regularly had volunteers from abroad. We would often see them walking down the road, enjoying the sunshine in their shorts or mini-skirts.

One day a Zambian colleague came and asked why so many white women he saw would cover the top parts of their body but would show their legs and thighs in short skirts. This was not an unreasonable query for someone who comes from a culture where breastfeeding openly is not an issue but where if you are female you must keep everything covered from your midriff down to below your thighs. In Zambia this area of the body is seen as the erotic area and shouldn’t be shown, not even in trousers.

Zambian ladies sporting their chitenges
Ladies of the village sporting their chitenges

In order to preserve their modesty then, Zambian women, in rural areas especially, wear something called a chitenge. A chitenge is a piece of cloth, 2 yards or meters in length that women wrap around their body. The width of the cloth is long enough to cover you more or less from your waist to your ankles (depending on your height!).

Go to a village in Zambia and it would be very unusual to find a woman not wearing a chitenge. It is a practical item too, it covers your clothes which can become dirty quite quickly in the dust and charcoal stoves of rural life, it can be used to cover your hair so you don’t smell of smoke from cooking and it can be coiled onto the crown of the head as padding when you fetch water and they are essential for carrying your baby.

I always carry one with me when travelling just in case we stop somewhere remote, and when we do, it is always appreciated that I made the effort to wear one. ‘Madam you are a Zambian now!’ And Chitenges are not only used by women, since they are so cheap they are perfect for making clothes for both men and women.

A few chitenge designs
A few chitenge designs

According to the British/Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, these pieces of cloth which are used by women all over sub-Saharan Africa originated from Indonesia. The patterns and colours are immensely varied and I have seen chitenges with pictures of politicians on them, stylised light bulbs, even mobile phones.

Many travellers (including myself) become a little obsessed by chitenges and at around $4 each, they are an economical and lightweight souvenir. Unfortunately any chitenge you buy in Zambia these days will have been imported, as the factories that once produced them have closed and in the more cosmopolitan city of Lusaka they are not used so much.

However considering its versatility, I think the chitenge has definite staying power. Especially if fabric nuts like me keep buying them!

Read more:
Nshima and Zambia’s food culture
Street fashion on five continents
The long history of beads in Africa

About the author

Elizabeth Watkin
Elizabeth is a Brit living in Zambia with her American husband. She was an English teacher for many years, which is when she got the travelling bug; she has also been a VSO volunteer. She is now a freelance writer and education consultant as well as volunteer at a local art gallery.
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12 Comments

  • Very interesting, Elizabeth! So, are chitenges now made in China?

  • ‘Madam you are a Zambian now!’ This is the nicest thing the can say to you, I think. They consider you one of their own. (I wonder if people here would consider me a Texan LOL!)

    I’ve always admired the patterns and colours of African fabrics in general. i say African because I can’t really tell which country they’re from. At least now I learned about the chitenges. I don’t know if I’d wear one but I most definitely would like to own a few!

    @Marta, it breaks my heart to know that local businesses have gone down the drain and now the chitenges are now made in China, but it’s hardly surprising, is it?

  • I think some are made in India, Congo and Nigeria

  • Hello fellow fabric nut! I lived in Kenya and Ghana and many women there wear the “chitenge” (which of course has a different name in each country). I bought piles of cloth, use it as table cloths and made long skirts out of them.

    In Ghana I loved seeing the patterns with the icons of modern life and prosperity printed on them, like you mentioned, cell phones, TVs, computers, car keys, neck ties!

    Made in China? In Ghana they have a large fabric industry/factory, so don’t know. Will have to check this out. Would be too bad, because it it such a local culturally significant product!

  • I would imagine some of those Ghanian fabrics end up in Zambia. The artist Yinka Shonibare talks about the origins of the fabrics here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mtQ9Ydm624

  • Hi Elizabeth, yes, I know about that history. I lived in Inonesia for a couple of years and brought back a pile of “batik” fabric from there as well.

    The designs of the African fabric have taken on their own character. It is interesting how our world works!

  • Sue Bolton

    Hello Elizabeth
    Just recently returned from a trip through Malawi and Zambia where we purchased many lovely chitenge pieces.Have plans to use them in a quilt. Can you suggest where I may be able to access more of them? Regards Sue

  • Wow, am I am so happy to read about the chitenge. Its just a pity that it seems the young and modern Zambians are throwing away this and it breaks my heart. I am so happy that you guys appreciate the chitenge. Compliments of the season to all of you.

  • Helen

    The chitenge is indeed comfortable. I have used it ever since i was born. It is good for hot seasons, just itself and a T/shirt is good for home and a nice designed suit is good for office.

  • where can l buy a chitenge in Johannesburg

  • Bwalya

    I am a Zambian and am so proud of the fact that our ‘signature’ cloth is getting well known. I am looking at the option of designing own prints. As a matter of fact the fabric is doing well for Afro Chic office wear, casual and smart….as well as bedding, curtain, quilt, place mats, door mats… use is endless

  • Nathalie

    I bought a Chitenge on a trip to in Mfuwe last week, from an Indian shop. I did not ask where it was made, but was assured by the shopkeeper that the “London wax” ones were the best ones to have. There was a great choice of colours and patterns. I felt it was a shame the lodge where we stayed sold Kenyan kikoy though and not chitenge.