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24 September 2014

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Our Man in Zambia

Chitenge - Zambian cloth
Chitenge - Zambian cloth

Material wealth

Jamie Baldwin
Nottinghamian Jamie Baldwin continues his series about life as a volunteer in Zambia.

"In areas where clean drinking water is hard to come by, villagers will also use their chitenges to filter dirty water. "
Jamie Baldwin

To many outsiders a two-metre square of fabric may seem an insignificant by-product of Zambian culture, but 'chitenge' material has a long and colourful history.

Chitenge has many uses in Zambian society other than as an item of clothing for virtually all the nation’s women. The cloth is used in everything from filtering dirty water to an implement of political means.

Come election time, many villagers will not even listen to what the politicians have to say unless some sort of chitenge incentive is on offer. In the run-up to the last election the faces of wannabe presidents adorned the legs of most young Zambian women wearing these political chitenges.

In areas where clean drinking water is hard to come by, villagers will also use their chitenges to filter dirty water. To make a filter the cloth is folded over several times, enough to remove the turbidity and optimise flow.

Chitenge wedding outfits
Chitenge wedding outfits

Whether it is used as a means of carrying a baby, as a bag to carry groceries on one’s head or simply as an extra layer if the weather changes, most Zambians won’t leave the house without a spare chitenge or two.

In the past, these garments were made from grasses and leaves found in the bush, woven together by the village’s expert tailors. This was before the mass production of chitenge cloth took over. Old-style chitenges can still be found but are sold as collector’s items rather than for practical purposes.

Chitenge baby carrier
Chitenge baby carrier

Tailoring, however, is still a thriving profession. Male and female tailors ply their trade in public markets, shop corridors, and from private homes in cities and small towns across the country. Many of them have engaged actively with the challenge posed by the import of salalula - second-hand clothing usually consisting of hand-me-downs from Western countries – and have instead made specialised outfits from the chitenge material (as modelled by Alice).

It is reassuring to see that even with the popularity of salalula the chitenge still holds a special place for all Zambians. In the workplace, at weddings, at funerals or in the fields, most women still wear the wrap around chitenge or a tailored outfit made from the material. Indeed, most men – including myself – tend to have a rather garish selection of chitenge shirts for special occasions.

Chitenge shirts
Chitenge shirts

Along with nshima and the oral tradition, the chitenge is a national icon and something that it is as typically Zambian as fish ‘n' chips and talking about the weather is in England. In many hospitals a newborn baby is wrapped in a chitenge as soon as it is delivered. Similarly, when someone dies they too are enveloped in their favourite chitenge material to take with them to the grave. And there is something reassuring about the symmetry of it all.

last updated: 05/10/04
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