Nineteen uses for a chitenje

In Malawi, chitenjes are everywhere—and they’re fabulous.

A woman selling chitenjes in the Lilongwe market
A woman selling chitenjes in the Lilongwe market

These 2×1-metre rectangles of brightly patterned cloth, also called kitenje in some neighbouring countries, are most commonly seen worn by women, wrapped around their waist like a towel. Especially outside the cities, women wear chitenje like it’s a uniform. But truly, it’s more like a miracle garment. Here’s the list I’ve been keeping for the past month of the different ways you can use a chitenje—it’s hardly exhaustive!

  1. Baby carrier–probably the second most common use of the chitenje. Baby strollers are not a thing in Malawi. Instead, women wrap their babies in the cloth and tie them around their back. The babies are always remarkably quiet in this arrangement (maybe because they’re close to their mum!).
  2. Bedsheet. (I’m tempted to use mine like this starting soon, because I don’t want to wash my existing sheets by hand.)
  3. Rain jacket (though not a terribly effective one)
  4. Beach towel or beach cover-up, perfect for a trip to the shores of Lake Malawi.
  5. Tablecloth
  6. Fabric for a dress or skirt. Fun story: one of the guards of the compound where I live moonlights as a tailor, and so I am wearing a chitenje skirt as I write this.
  7. Curtains or drapes. Perfect for the interior of a colourful Malawian home.
  8. Headscarf (if one has such tying skills, which I do not).
  9. Pillow–not the coziest one, but it’d do in a pinch.
  10. Material for a shoulder bag. IN FACT, you can buy a bag in Canada made out of chitenje from the Zikomo Bags group. It’s an excellent cause—the bags are made by ladies working at the Rainbow Centre for HIV/AIDS Home-Based Care in Lilongwe. (Social justice chitenjes are the best kind.)
  11. Grocery sack or mat for produce at the market
  12. Temporary car window. (I’ve seen it done.)
  13. Handkerchief or napkin. Hey, when you don’t have disposable tissues readily available…
  14. Dish towel (I’ve done this.)
  15. Apron. (Also tried this, with hilarious results.)
  16. Fabric for a chair cushion
  17. Wall hanging. Here in Malawi it’d be a bit lame, but at home I think it’d be exotic.
  18. Head cushion. Women in Malawi have an amazing ability to carry large and heavy things on their head, and I’ve seen some roll up a chitenje and put it on their head to make their skull a flatter surface.
  19. Changeroom in the market. Probably the most azungu use on the list. Picture this: three white girls shopping for clothes in the busy, buzzing marketplace. One needs to try on a pair of shorts before buying them. And so: the other two hold up a recently purchased chitenje to form a wall that she can duck behind to see if the shorts fit. Yes, this actually happened. And I was one of the chitenje holders, killing myself laughing at the spectacle.

IMG_5779(An aside: In the aforementioned market outing in Lilongwe, our group of girls spent a long time and a good chunk of kwacha at the chitenje stalls. I also took a few photos of two beautiful women with their products. I loved taking their pictures and showing them the result—they were happy to see themselves on the camera screen, and it was clear they don’t have their photo taken often.)


One thought on “Nineteen uses for a chitenje

  1. Reblogged this on Thoughts From Places and commented:
    This’ll help explain my post about the political use of chitenjes! We’re still adding to this list as we go, since they’re the most multipurpose garments in the world.

    This was written by my friend Sasha, who is also volunteering out here.

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