In search of the elusive chitenge

Every weekend my host family and I go to the market to get our produce, but given that their favorite vendor is near the entrance and there are other errands to do, I felt like I wanted to explore more of this place. I was also in search of a chitenge (chih-ten-jay; pl. zitenges), the cloth women wear wrapped around their waist. Many women I’ve seen here in the city are dressed in Western clothing but there are still a fair number of women, especially in the villages, who still wear these colorful cloths. They also double as a baby carrier (the wide-eyed little one is usually in back) or a lunchbox. In short, beautiful and useful!

So last Saturday morning I set off for the market. The city is really spread out so it took about an hour to get there, but I enjoyed the exercise and the sites (where else can you find people hawking juicy oranges, sugarcane, shoes or PUPPIES on the side of the road?! It was really hard not to take one of those little guys home, he could have perched easily in my backpack 🙂 ). Zitenges are sold at the market near the hotels but since that market caters solely to tourists I knew they’d be really expensive. So on to the “old market” we visit every weekend. Some people had mentioned this elusive chitenge market located somewhere near the old market, so that was my goal for the day. I passed by the stalls near the street selling fruits (fresh pineapple and papaya, yum!) and veggies, and made my way into the narrower rows towards the back. Men and women sell in separate parts of the market (apparently to avoid men bothering the women), so female faces emerged among the small fish, oil, and beans. Away from the road, the atmosphere was quiet and calm, though I got several stares because I was definitely the only white person now. All of a sudden the stalls ended and several rickety wooden bridges emerged, crossing a small river.

The rickety bridges leading to the clothes market

Picture a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, where you have to carefully avoid stepping on the loose plank; even the Malawian women didn’t seem too comfortable crossing! It was quite fun 🙂

watch your step! 🙂

On the opposite side was more market, but this one was all clothes! It was like a giant flea market with things in big piles: one pile for pants, another for t-shirts, shoes, underwear, etc! People just sorted through, with their vegetables, children, or live chicken in their remaining hand. This place was even more crowded, in a fun-haphazard kind of way: the narrow paths through the stalls wound in all directions, each stall jammed up to the one next to it. Vendors lounged amidst their piles of pants/shirts, and the site of a strange mzungu (white) girl drew curious stares. But people were respectful; only a few gave an annoying-but-harmless “hey sweetie”, and when I ignored them they went back to what they were doing. I also tried to walk with confidence (telling myself, “pretend you’re a Peace Corps volunteer and that you go here every week”), and I think acting like I knew exactly where I was going helped. 🙂

The clothes section of the market. Would have liked to get more pictures from inside the market but my first time it seemed better to just observe.

So much clothing… but all Western-style! Where were the zitenges?

At some point the maze-like paths tumbled out onto a city street, but a totally different part of the city than the shopping-center-filled parts closer to where I live. These were streets with dirt roads and little hole-in-the-wall shops crammed next to each other, tailors sitting outside sewing on rusty iron machines… A beautiful mosque appeared,

and while it wasn’t open for visitors, the caretaker did know a place that sold zitenges! Trying to not to lose track of the clothes market, I turned down some sidestreets and found it! A young Indian couple (many shop owners here are Indian or Lebanese) orchestrated assistants in finding the requested pattern amidst almost 50 choices.

The final picks:

The first round… let me know if you want these or others!

This place sells wholesale so it’s a great price, and I can find my way back, so if you’d like any of these, or a different one, let me know!


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