Hip has-beens

‘Akwaaba!” shouts Margaret as she pats the dirty ground next to her and welcomes me to sit. Humidity that makes Durban seem like the driest of deserts compels me to take up her offer.

Margaret is hard at work: shrieking out prices, taking money from customers and nodding her approval to women trying on her wares. Margaret is selling bras of every shape, size and colour and her “shop” consists of a small patch of dusty ground. Around her the organised chaos of buying and selling plays out like a well-rehearsed ballet.

For sale, as far as your eyes can see, are T-shirts, jeans, dresses, underwear, shorts and shoes. What makes this market different from most is that all the items here have been worn before. Margaret’s bras are an extremely valuable commodity.

I’m in Kantamanto Market in downtown Accra and, not one for monuments and museums, I’m exploring the world of Obruni wawu. This literally means “a white man has died”.

The second-hand clothing sold at this market makes up just a fraction of the cast-offs that fuel a billion-dollar-a-year, globe-spanning industry. Charity organisations in the West collect clothing donated to them, sort it, compress it into 1000-pound (about 450kg) bales and ship it to Africa, where, from Mozambique to Mali, it is resold. The phenomenon is thriving. I’ve seen it in many other African countries in the past year — Burkina Faso, Kenya and Mozambique — but it is here in Kanta-manto that I feel the real intensity and resilience of the business.

Armani suits lie next to T-shirts declaring that the owner survived that year’s 5km charity race. Gucci dresses lie in the dust alongside Nike football togs. T-shirts are adorned with the faces of Jay-Z, Bon Jovi, Bob Marley and Britney Spears. Little Miss Posh and United States marine T-shirts are a hit. The clothing may be second-hand, but fashion consciousness is of the utmost importance. The most fashionable items and brands are in the highest demand and a furious battle to find the hippest has-beens is in full force here.

Issa, a T-shirt seller who lives in northern Ghana and goes home once a month to his family, tells me how the recession can be felt even here in Kantamanto’s warren of alleyways. In the West when people feel the recessionary pinch they donate less. In Ghana money is even scarcer than it used to be and the need for second-hand clothing is on the increase. All this pushes up the cost of the imported bales and, ultimately, each item of clothing. “You see,” Issa tells me, “Wall Street affects us too.”

At first I feel a slight moral queasiness induced by the sale and resale of donated and discarded clothing from the world’s richest to some of its poorest. There’s something uncomfortable about the “Welcome to Kansas City” T-shirt worn by the woman who offers to sell me yams through my tou-tou (minibus taxi) window.

But what’s evident in Kanta-manto is that it works. Thousands are profiting. It is conservatively estimated that more than 10000 people are employed in this market alone: brokers, bundlers, traders, shippers, merchants and peddlers among them. Clothing washers, hanger makers, ironers, money collectors, cooks, landlords, market cleaners and shoe-polish sellers are all making a living from these hand-me-downs.

Tailors, especially, are flourishing in this market. The whiz and whirr of sewing machines colours the market and the machines (some that look as though they have survived the Stone Age) are in continual use. The tailor’s role is vital here to “Africanise” the garments that come from the West. Many need to be made much smaller to fit the African build and both pants and shirts need to be shortened to allow for the warmer climate.

At the end of the day I say good-bye to Margaret and her aspirant Victoria’s Secret stall in the dust and head into the diesel-fumed traffic that is Accra’s rush hour. I think two things. One: it’s time to clean out my closet. Those pants that I continue to think I will one day fit back into will help out someone else. Two: I think that next time I come to Ghana, I’m bringing an empty suitcase.

The Story Behind The Bras

Samantha Reinders flew to Ghana to participate in the Twenty Ten Project. The project, sponsored by World Press Photo, FreeVoice, Africa Media Online and lokaalmondiaal, is inspired by the 2010 Fifa World Cup and is training African journalists, helping them to distribute and sell their stories around the world. After her colleagues from around Africa left, she stayed on and spent a week exploring Accra. She’s busy working on a long-term project on the second-hand clothing industry in Africa.

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