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