As a boy growing up in Sierra Leone, Kemoh Bah prized his Michael Jackson T-shirt. “I was the only one who had this kind of T-shirt in my village and I felt like I was part of American culture,” said Bah, dressed head to toe in branded clothes outside his second-hand clothes shack in the capital, Freetown.
Nicknamed “junks” in Sierra Leone, hand-me-downs account for the majority of outfits in a country in which seven out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day. The industry has ballooned to $1-billion in Africa since 1990. Yet the combination of western charity and African brand enthusiasm is not always a force for good.
Apart from the ethical issue of donated goods becoming tradeable commodities with which middlemen can turn a profit, there is the threat to local textile markets to consider.
About a third of globally donated clothes make their way through wholesale rag houses to sub-Saharan Africa, where they end up lining the streets or filling boutiques. Hawkers call it Christmas time when westerners offload clothes to charity shops.
Critics say the billion-dollar trade risks swamping fragile domestic textiles markets. Twelve out of 31 countries that have banned their import are in Africa.
“The only way I survived was to start making Muslim women’s clothes,” said tailor Bema Sidibe from Côte d’Ivoire, where about 20 tonnes of second-hand clothes flooded the country last year. In neighbouring Ghana, 10 times that amount enter in an average year. “Muslim women do not go for these western-influenced clothes and around traditional feast days you are guaranteed a few new outfits will be ordered,” Sidibe said.
Increasingly, taste as well as necessity has come into play. Picking through Kemoh’s roadside cabin, bargain-hunter Fatima rifles through Gucci castoffs. “You can buy even cheaper Chinese ready-mades, but then you look like everybody else,” she said.
A roaring trade continues across Africa, from Ghana’s thriving “faux” markets to Nigeria’s “bend-down” boutiques. Each month, using shipping containers supposedly full of cars, a network of traffickers, including Chidi Ugwe, smuggles clothes to Nigeria’s sprawling Katangua market.
“Most of the clothes land in smaller countries, such as Togo and Benin, and then we get them to Nigeria. We call them flying goods, because they fly into the country without being seen,” Ugwe, a former customs officer, said.
The clothes mostly come from Europe, although relatively affluent countries in Asia also provide a steady trickle. So popular are the clothes in Katangua market that thousands of traders bribe border officials to bring in their own bales.
“We call our shops ‘bend-down’ boutiques because we have so many clothes we just pour them on the floor and you just bend down and select,” said Mercy Azbuike, surrounded by piles of clothes overflowing from her wooden shack.
“Even those selling clothes in boutiques [proper stores] are buying from us,” said Azbuike.
In her stall, mothers with children elbow past teenagers. “I cover myself but under my abaya [Muslim dress] I still want to wear nice, modern clothes,” said 18-year-old Fatoumata. – © Guardian News & Media 2012