Chitenjes for everyone

Chitenjes are probably the greatest things ever. A chitenje is a rectangular piece cloth, usually 2 to four meters in length and about one meter in width. The patterns are bright, the colors are vibrant and Malawian women use their chitenjes for a myriad of different purposes:

Shopping for chitenjes

1) To carry their children on their backs. There are two ways to tie it: the first way is over one shoulder and the other is to wrap it tightly around their middle. Either way, the children always look happy or sleepy as they are secured tightly to their mothers.

A mother and her baby

A matching mother and baby

2) To carry things on their heads. Malawian women are incredibly strong. They can lift a fifty pound bucket of water onto their heads without batting an eye. They have excellent posture and balance. Putting whatever it is their carrying on their heads seems to be their first inclination, whether it’s a suitcase or a bar of soap. Often, they will wrap it in a chitenje which makes it easier to balance and makes sure whatever it is they are carrying doesn’t fall out of the basket.

Helps in carrying things

3) To carry things around their waist. Many young girls carrying fire wood will wrap their tins (for food or drinking water) several times in their chitenje and then tie it around their waist. It’s a Malawian-style fanny pack.

Again, good for carrying things

 4) To keep their children warm. Little children will often be wrapped in at least one chitenje during the winter months. Sometimes the children will wear them like a cape and they look like mini super heroes.

Staying warm

Mini superheroes

5) To cover their heads. Many Malawian women wear their hair up and tied with a chitenje.

Matching chitenjes

6) Most commonly, women wear their chitenjes as skirts. Malawi is still a relatively conservative country in terms of how women dress. It was illegal for women to wear pants until a few years ago. The chitenjes go almost to the ankle but are still light and cool. There are several ways to tie a chitenje but it’s definitely an art form. There are so many patterns and colors that the women always look beautiful. A lot of women seem to think of chitenjes the way we think of jeans. They’ll put on their chitenje after a long day at work and feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Chitenje skirt

7) To express ideas, advertise, and celebrate events. While many chitenjes are colorful abstract patterns, some are used for advertising purposes. There are chitenjes that are printed with the logos of political parties, banks, and beer companies. They can also be made to celebrate a certain event, such as the anniversary of a church, Malawian independence day, the marriage of the President, or even international events (there is a chitenje for with Barak Obama’s face and the American flag that says “Yes we can!”). NGO’s will also use chitenjes to encourage people to make healthy choices and use mosquito nets, for example, or water purification products.

A local political party chitenje

8) To decorate. Well, that’s what I do anyway – I’ve used chitenjes to cover pillows, make curtains napkins, an apron, a skirt, and to decorate a boring wall. They make great beach blankets and in touristy areas they’re used to make “happy pants.” I’m not sure what makes them happy, but I think we may needs some.


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14 responses to “Chitenjes for everyone

  1. Susie

    Kate and Vera. Sandy and Ralph. WHAT a fabulous story. I cannot wait to learn to tie one on John’s head!

  2. Ginny

    Kate, you’re getting creative with these posts! Driving, now chitenjes!

  3. Bill Overend

    I can’t wait to see you carry 50 lbs on your head and/or a load of firewood. You are going to be the most treasured wife in the US when you come home with all of those new skills. XOXO, BB

  4. Ginger

    Too fun! We are loving our napkins and Alex’s apron!

  5. Nancy

    Can I place an order for an Obama one????? Can’t wait for the kids to read this post! You are a good teacher! Love you!

  6. Arline Taylor

    They are beautiful colors – very practical, too. I’m so proud of you two and the good work you are doing. The children are so adorable – are you going to bring one home with you?
    Love you, Marnine

  7. Barb

    Most interesting and they are beautiful. Do YOU wear jeans there??????

  8. Chelsea

    Awesome – I want a chichenje!! It reminds me a bit of a tablecloth Matthias and I bought in Guatemala. It was woven by the indigenous population with the characteristic bright, multi-colored pattern.

  9. Douglas Taylor

    my dad used to tell a story to demonstrate how strong Malawian women are.

    He was visiting a Malawian friend and went with him and his wife to the stream for water.

    The husband tried to lift the bucket of water and could not budge it. My dad then tried and had the same result. The wife just laughed and hoisted it onto her head and back to the house they went.

    My own story is at the foot of Mulanje mountain. We had just come down from a few days of climbing. Looking at some Mulanje cedar stacked at the bottom I tried to budge one of the planks and was astonished at how heavy it was. I could not lift it an inch. These things get carried down the mountain by men (this time) but on their heads of course.

    That of course is a specialist job but in normal daily life for people who collect water from the stream it is the women who have the muscles…and the balance.

  10. Migratory Habits

    Reblogged this on Migratory Habits and commented:
    I just thought I should write a little bit more about chitenjes and what they actually are and what Malawian women use them for. Here’s a great post by a blogger who lived in Blantyre. As for me, more on chitenje fashion coming soon so watch this space.

  11. Migratory Habits

    Hi there! I don’t know if you still live in Malawi but I just came across this post and thought it was great. I live in Lilongwe and have started blogging about my life in Malawi. Hope you don’t mind that I re-blogged this post!

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  13. Exceptional post but I was wondering if you could write a
    litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could
    elaborate a little bit further. Many thanks!

  14. Pingback: Making Nsima in Salima –

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