Obama on my lap

A chitenge is a piece of brightly colored fabric, approximately 2 meters in length, utilized by Malawian women in a variety of ways.  Chitenges are regularly worn over skirts (like a more constant version of an apron), to strap a baby to one’s back, or to pad one’s head from a load of firewood, bag of maize, or whatever is being carried.  A chitenge can also be a shawl, a carrier, a makeshift umbrella, or just about anything else.  The chitenge is a ubiquitous accessory here, so these fabrics are both inexpensive and widely available.  Specialty chitenges are a popular way to display one’s support for political candidates, or indicate membership in a church.  It’s like the American penchant for t-shirts of the same function; instead of having the president on your shirt, he’s on your chitenge.

A friend has decided that she’d like to make a quilt of Malawian chitenges, so we had a little market adventure on Saturday.  Saturday is a huge market day in Lilongwe, and traffic into Old Town was pretty bad.  Despite the fact that most Malawians do not have cars, poorly timed lights and one-lane roads make for slow going when everyone is out and about.  We eventually parked and wandered around Old Town, visiting several shops and then the market.

Because so many of the patterns are large and loud, we didn’t have great success in finding quilt-worthy chitenges.  My friend got a few fabrics, and I got a yellow and green chitenge for general use.  Since the going rate is 400 kwacha ($2.85) for 2 meters, it’s not a great loss if I don’t use it.

The highlight of the shopping adventure, however, came in a small second-story shop in Old Town.  While most of the chitenges the store carried ranged from ugly to downright weird, it had a decent stock of specialty chitenges.  (The election here is coming up in May, so political advertising has started – chitenges are available for each of the political parties.)  And, it was here, on a hot Saturday afternoon in Lilongwe, that I became a proud owner of  the Malawi-made Barack Obama chitenge.

Barack Obama chitenge (detail)

Barack Obama chitenge (detail)

The fabric is actually of decent quality, and as you can see the chitenge features a (white) Barack Obama, the capitol, eagles on both hips, and stars and stripes forever.   Sure, it’s not printed straight, and it’s a little long for everyday use (see below), but I thought it was a hilarious and delightful souvenir to carry back to the US.  I’ve yet to see any Malawians wearing an Obama chitenge, but I assume they must exist.  This shop was a little too out of the way to cater solely to tourists!  I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for Obama on someone else’s lap!

Pardon the awkward pose

Pardon the awkward pose


5 Responses to “Obama on my lap”

  1. Jessie Says:

    Any Madonna sightings? Ugh, I can only imagine what she looks like when her team isn’t there to airbrush her and do hair and what-have-you. Or maybe she’s the kind of lady that drags her crew to Malawai so she looks good in her press photos while illegally adopting another baby. Hooray!

  2. LoveLetterstoMiddleEast Says:

    Well, look at you!

    You know, you are starting to look very comfortable in your surroundings these days. You look… glowy.

    Love ya (and the post too).

  3. amyinmalawi Says:

    Holly, I think what you’re referring to as “glowy” is some post-volleyball sweat and my yellow-ish lampshades – but thanks.

    No Madonna sightings yet!

  4. Rachel Says:

    Hehe lovely!!

  5. Jeanne Fitzsimmons Says:


    Great to see the Malawi chitenge but the image of the president (or other political/historical figure) is supposed to be in the back as you wear it, therefore, not on your lap.

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