An Ode to Malawian Headgear

Catholic University Students. Picture by Asaph Photography

You can tell a lot about a person by how they dress. In our western clothing, we know the slay queens and kings, the modest fashionistas, the decent clad young brother and his “wear everything I see in a trap music video” counterpart. We know the laid-back, the pristine, and the high and low maintenance. There is identity in clothing.

And just as western clothing reveals identity, so too does traditional Malawian garb. Our traditional clothing reveals our culture – our identity.

It’s a good thing Malawian dressing – like Jon Snow – just refuses to die. Despite being in the shadow of western clothing, some trends of Malawian dressing persist.

Malawian headgear is one of the most beautiful components of traditional garb. Diverse and culturally oriented, the accessory dates back to our pre-colonial ancestors. Contemporary headgear has gone through slight changes to suit the changing times but many tribal headgear remains untouched.

Ngoni headgear is similar to that of their cousins – the Zulus. Ngoni men wear Mthini (or Nthini, depending on who you ask), which is circular in shape and worn as a head band.

Mthini (or Nthini, depending on who you ask). Picture by Asaph Photography

Mthini were originally made from leopard or lion hide and were a symbol of bravery and authority. No guesses to why they were a favourite of clan heads and chiefs.

These days, Ngoni Mthini have melted into Malawi’s collective culture and can be worn by anybody. Modern Mthinis, which are made from synthetic fabrics, are staples of local markets. (Side note: It’s very encouraging to see that local designers include traditional headgear in their creative output despite the declining interest in traditional Malawian clothing).

Like most Malawian women, Ngoni women wear a Duku. It is a piece of chitenje cloth which is wound around the head. The head covering accessory is a symbol of dignity.

The Duku. Picture by Asaph Photography

The Tumbukas also have their own head dress. It is called mphumphu. It is a royal dressing, only worn by chiefs particularly when they have a case to settle, during traditional gatherings and other official gatherings.

The other common head dress is zipewa za mlaza. These are more common in districts along Lake Malawi’s shoreline and the southern region. These hats are sorely for shade against the suns heat. Fun fact: zipewa za mlaza are similar in style to hats worn by Chinese rice farmers with a few differences in terms of shape.

Some headgear is ceremonial and religious oriented. The Yaos and those affiliated to Islam wear zibiya. The Lomwe wear head bands made from animal skins when dancing tchopa. And lastly, the Tongas wear head gear tucked with feathers when dancing Malipenga. The headgear is a symbol of their glory and pride.

With this handy 4-1-1, you are encouraged to take more pride in Malawian culture and promote it endlessly. A nation without culture is like a tree without roots.

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