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 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.