BY Stephen Nartey, 5:30pm September 30, 2022,

Why the popular Chitenge African cloth has multiple names

Photo Credit: Jfoth/Wikimedia Commons

The chitenge or kitenge, the popular traditional cloth in the Eastern and Southern parts of Africa, is noted for its varied uses in each geographic location and different names depending on which tribe one comes from. 

Its largest patrons are women who either use chitenge as a scarf to cover their hair or a covering around the waist or chest. As much as the chitenge enjoys patronage by both men and women in some parts of Africa, it is forbidden for men to wear the traditional cloth in Malawi

The chitenge is popular among many traditional homes because of the variety of designs and colors it offers to its clientele at a cheaper cost compared to other fabrics. 

There is no chitenge without a meaning. At political rallies, it is relevant for the meanings it conveys. During naming and burial, they carry happy and sorrowful meanings in the inscriptions embossed on them. 

In modern times, the chitenge has witnessed some adaptations among millennials who put fanciful styles on skirts and shirts sewn out of the traditional cloth, as reported by Wilderness Safaris. 

It is one cloth that is versatile, whether one is attending an elite ceremony or seeking to make a personal statement politically or symbolically. 

In the rural settings of the Southern part of Africa, chitenge is the vehicle that takes the everyday person to funerals, religious events and naming ceremonies. It is considered decent and serves every purpose if one understands the language of chitenge. 

One of the languages the chitenge possesses is the comfort it provides babies when it is used to carry babies either at the back or front of a mother. In many traditional settings, the chitenge is the baby court a child is placed in. In traditional settings, the chitenge is designed colorfully and used as a table cloth to decorate sofas and tables in the dining halls. 

In some African countries, the chitenge is used as bath robes by women, by stretch, it’s modified and used as curtains to cover door openings. For average income earners, the traditional cloth provides the comfort and covering of body parts, their hair when doing house chores and cloth for menial work at the workplace. 

Artist Yinka Shonibare observed that even though the traditional cloth originated from Indonesia, it has been co-opted in many parts of Africa because of its cost. 

Either way, its acceptance is widely spread across rural settings in Africa. That’s why it is known by several names in many African countries. In Congo, it is known as Kitenge. In Zambia, it is called Sarong. It is also known as Kanga, nguvu and vemba in other cultures.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 30, 2022


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