Kitenge or chitenge (pl. vitenge) is an East African, West African and Central African fabric similar to sarong, often worn by women and wrapped around the chest or waist, over the head as a headscarf, or as a baby sling. Kitenges are colorful pieces of fabric that contain a variety of patterns and designs. In the Coastal area of Kenya, and in Tanzania, Kitenges often have Swahili sayings written on them.
Kitenges are similar to kangas and kikoi, but are of a thicker cloth and have an edging on only a long side. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo are some of the African countries where kitenge is worn. In Malawi, kitenge is known as Chitenje and in Namibia and some parts of Zambia it is chitenge. They are sometimes worn by men around the waist in hot weather. In some countries like Malawi, kitenges never used to be worn by men until recently when the president encouraged civil servants to buy Malawian products by wearing a kitenge on Fridays.
The printing on the cloth is done by a traditional batik technique. These are known as wax prints and the design is equally as bright and detailed on the obverse side of the fabric. Today, wax prints are commercially made and are almost completely roller printed with less colorful designs on the obverse side. Many of the designs have a meaning. A large variety of religious and political designs are found as well as traditional tribal patterns. The cloth is used as material for dresses, blouses and pants as well.
Kitenges can be used on occasions and in many ways either symbolically or for practical reasons. Kitenges are used in different settings to convey messages. The following list demonstrates uses of the cloths.
- In Malawi, kitenges are customary for women at funerals.
- They are used as a sling to hold a baby across the back of a mother. They can hold the baby at the front as well, particularly when breast feeding.
- Kitenges are given as gifts to young women.
- They are sometimes tied together and used as decorative pieces at dinner tables.
- When women go to the beach, often the kitenge is wrapped around the bathing suit for modesty or to shield cold air.
- Kitenges can be framed or otherwise hung up on the wall as a decorative batik artwork.
Kitenges have also become very popular as fashion statements in urban pop culture with youth in Africa. Kitenges are incorporated in clothing items such as hoodies, trousers, and accessories such as bags.
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