[Marxism] Thrift shop imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 14 09:05:29 MDT 2004

For sale -- cheap: 'Dead white men's clothing'
In Africa, the West's castoff clothes are de rigueur, not demeaning. 
Nearly everyone has to buy used
LA Times, July 14, 2004
By Davan Maharaj, Times Staff Writer

Tossed off a flatbed truck, a 100-pound bale of used panties and bras, 
worn socks, DKNY suits and Michael Jordan jerseys lands with a thud amid 
a jostling swarm of shoppers.

Okech Anorue slits the plastic wrap on the refrigerator-size bundle he 
bought for $95 and dives in. There's bound to be a gem in there — like 
the faded leather bomber jacket once worn by Tiffany of Costa Mesa High 
School. That piece now hangs on the premium rack in his 5-foot-by-5-foot 
stall with a $25 price tag.

"These clothes make people's dreams come true," says Anorue, chairman of 
the vendors association at Yaba Market. "Everyone wears them, from 
insurance women, vendors, poor people to parliamentarians. When they put 
them on, you can't tell rich from poor."

Much of Africa was once draped in fabrics of flamboyant color and 
pattern, products of local industry and a reflection of cultural pride. 
But with half of its people surviving on less than a dollar a day, the 
continent has become the world's recycling bin. People scramble for 
10-cent underpants, 20-cent T-shirts and dollar blue jeans discarded by 

A young man in the Congolese jungle wears a T-shirt that pleads: "Beam 
me up, Scotty." In a Lagos nightclub, a Nigerian ingenue models a used 
red negligee over a hot-pink halter top. A young Liberian fighter with 
an AK-47 assault rifle wears a tan bathrobe like a trench coat.

In Togo, the castoffs are called "dead white men's clothing." Few people 
in that West African country believe that a living person would throw 
away anything this good. Consumers in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania call 
the used clothing mitumba, the Swahili word for bale.

"Without mitumba, most Ugandans would be walking naked in the 
countryside," lamented an editorial in that country's leading newspaper, 
the Monitor.

Insatiable demand from village shops and sprawling urban markets has 
turned the West's castoffs into an industry that generates hundreds of 
millions of dollars annually. Clothing is only the most visible example. 
Polluting refrigerators and air conditioners, expired medicines and old 
mattresses also are routinely shipped and resold here. Used vehicles 
imported from Japan dot African roads. Antiquated secondhand computers 
power many African governments.

The trade in hand-me-downs offers millions of Africans another means to 
endure their daily struggle with poverty. Shoppers get cheap clothes, 
and legions of vendors eke out a living one worn T-shirt at a time.

Mere survival has a long-term cost: The continent is losing the capacity 
to produce its own clothing. Although labor is cheap, Africans cannot 
make a shirt that costs as little as a used one. Every textile mill in 
Zambia has closed. Fewer than 40 of Nigeria's 200 mills remain. The vast 
majority of textile factories in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi are 
shuttered as well. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs.

"We are digging our own graves," says Chris Kirubi, a Kenyan 
industrialist who blamed secondhand clothing for the demise of his 
textile mill. "When you make your own clothes, you employ farmers to 
grow cotton, people to work in textile mills and more people to work in 
clothes factories. When you import secondhand clothes, you become a 
dumping ground."



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