Thursday, February 26, 2009

Zambian Textiles 101

Another week in Zambia is almost over for us. Twice this week, I had to ride home after a very heavy downpour. It was quite the adventure. The dirt roads and paths suddenly have streams or mini lakes, and all the sand turns to mud. Needless to say, I arrived home yesterday and Tuesday with muddy feet and legs. Fortunately, I didn't slip and fall over while riding, it didn't start to downpour again, and I had remembered my chitengi, so I was able to wrap that over top of my skirt, and my skirt stayed clean. Well, mostly clean.

A chitengi is a patterned piece of woven cloth worn as a wrap-around skirt. It's similar to a sarong except the fabric is not quite as soft and filmy as a sarong. I've purchased one since I've been here, and it's been very handy. I've even learned the Zambian way of wrapping and securing it. Women use them often. They wear them over top of another skirt or slip. Sometimes it serves as the main skirt, but other times it serves as dust and mud protection. Women wear them or take them along when traveling. When riding in the back of a truck numerous women were wearing them over top of their skirts or pants. When traveling on one of the big busses (picture a coach bus) women might carry them with them when the bus stops for a toilet break. There are no public toilets along the side of the road, so a chitengi is very convient to give yourself some privacy while doing your business. Chitengis also serve as loungewear. You may see some women who wear western clothes to work relaxing at the end of the day in a t-shirt and a chitengi.

And, of course, I cannot forget one of the most practical uses of a chitengi: a baby-carrier! Who needs fancy baby carries with metal frames and all kinds of straps and snaps? A simple piece of cloth works very well. In Swaziland and here in Zambia, we've seen scores of women carrying their babies on their backs. They bend over, swing the baby up on their back, the baby holds on (if it's old enough), and the woman takes a chitengi and wraps it around herself and the baby and ties the two ends together over one shoulder (in Swaziland they tie the pieces together in front, not over the shoulder). Voila! The babies look snug and safe and the woman's hands are free for whatever task she has next.

For you textiles buffs out there, the cotton fabric is a one up, one down fairly open basic weave,the threads are yarn-dyed a base color and then a pattern is printed on, from what I can tell.

Hope you enjoyed your textiles lesson!

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