March 8, 2016
How the Chitenge has revolutionised women’s empowerment in Zambia
It’s International Women’s Day and there were numerous ways we could shout out to our sisters around the world, but we thought we’d venture into a whole other culture and see what the women in Zambia are celebrating in 2016. Dekha Phiri opens our eyes…
The clock struck 10 as I sipped some hot chocolate at my favourite breakfast spot in Lusaka. I had just spent two hours mulling over what seemed like mind-numbingly gibberish ideas for my blog post. Seething with frustration, I was about to throw in the towel when a young lady clad in a colourful African-print cropped top and blue pants walked into the cafe. She also had on a matching African-print head wrap meticulously placed over her long curly hair. I was oddly fascinated by her exquisite chitenge-inspired outfit, a bold and adventurous style I initially thought most Zambian women would never adopt.
Armed with a friendly smile, I walked up to her and complimented her stunning outfit. Pleased by my remarks, she quickly exclaimed, “I feel proud of my culture when I incorporate the chitenge into my designs. I do love western clothing, but it gives me so much pride to be fashion-forward and still wear who I am as a Zambian and an African!” I soon learnt that her name was Kasonde Nkole, the creative force behind the local emerging Afrocentric fashion label Kasslita’s Designs. Her eye-catching collection proudly reflects the flamboyant style pulse of Mother Zambia with a touch of trendy western influences.
Kasonde described the mushrooming of Afrocentrism as a deliberate attempt by Zambian fashion designers to arouse the interests of the younger generation, “There was a time when chitenge wrappers were only worn by our grandmothers and mothers. Younger women would only wear them at home when doing chores or at funerals to show decency. But now, in this day and age, the chitenge has evolved into a remarkable fashion statement that is trending worldwide. Everyday, we see people wearing beautifully tailored chitenge outfits in classrooms, offices, church services and shopping malls There is such a diverse assortment of chitenge apparel, jewellery, car seats, house decor, hand bags, shoes; you name it … even umbrellas! There is virtually nothing this fabric has not been used for!”
In discussing the increased popularity of the Afrocentric fashion among Zambian women, Kasonde commented, “I think many Zambian women are recognising the importance of embracing our culture through the chitenge fabric. It makes us look very fashionably unique. When we fully embrace our history, traditions and languages, adorning the chitenge is simply a way of echoing our pride in our rich heritage. Some women buy into the Afrocentric style, while others prefer only to use the fabric as a wrapper, but there is one undeniable constant – the chitenge is deeply connected to our roots and will remain an important symbol of our ‘Zambian-ness’.” This interesting conversation left me with an itch to find out if other Zambian women shared Kasonde’s sentiments, so I set off with a fresh idea for my next article.
My unexpected journey to understand Afrocentrism in Zambia turned out to be one of insightful learning. When asked why the Afrocentric fashion is such an ‘in thing’ at the moment, most women responded with a similar answer – it retains their identity as Zambians. “I guess I can say that we are now moving with the times because we are combining the chitenge fabric with other contemporary fabrics like denim, lace, silk, suede and wool. You can never go wrong with these classy outfits, whichever way you choose to design them,” offered Caroline Mweni in explaining how the Zambian fashion has progressed.
Chongo Lombe added that the women who adopt this Afrocentric style usually maintain their individual fashion sense, “Every woman has their own interpretation of the trend. It’s no longer deemed weird when a woman wears chitenge shorts, hoodies, boots, or a complete chitenge skirt/pant suit. It’s not strange to see a woman with four large chunky bangles on her hand or the massive wooden Africa-shaped earrings. We accept it because that’s just who we are. We promote awareness of our beautiful culture through our stylish over-the-top outfits.”
Sarah Kalunga, a Zambian studying in France, pointed out that her chitenge outfits and jewellery distinguish her from the other African students. “Being in Paris has made me appreciate and value my heritage so much more. As soon as I stepped outside Zambian borders, I automatically became an ambassador. I have met people here who have either never heard of Zambia, or confuse it with Zimbabwe or Gambia. This made me really want to put Zambia forward, and the easiest way to do that was to proudly wear my chitenge dresses and my jewellery,” she shared. “I remember asking my sister to send me some beaded bracelets written Zambia and Chipolopolo on them. And when I came back home for the summer holidays, I stocked up on more chitenge dresses. It feels good to put my country on the map in my own little way.”
Fashion offers a myriad of empowerment opportunities for women in Zambia. Chola Lungu-Mutoni, a social entrepreneur and fashion designer at Poleka, conducts training programmes and workshops to equip young female entrepreneurs with tailoring and jewellery-making skills. She distributes starter-kits that enable young ladies to make jewellery using empty water and soda bottles. Other fashion designers explore the pride that comes from wearing chitenge outfits to promote modesty and instil confidence and self-acceptance in Zambian women.
Lusaka , Zambia