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[LIVING ON PENNIES]
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.
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,
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
"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
The used clothes most often start out in America. Charities such as
Goodwill and the Salvation Army sell donated clothes by the pound to
wholesale merchants, who grade them. The top grade usually ends up in
vintage shops in the United States, Europe or Latin America. The lesser
grade merchandise, much of which is faded or stained, is labeled Africa
A and Africa B.
Once in Africa, the bales of clothes bounce through a chain of
wholesalers until they are thrown off a truck at a market.
Several countries, including Nigeria, have tried to ban imports of used
clothing; others are trying to impose taxes on the trade. But even in
Nigeria, which earns billions of dollars a year in oil exports, the
demand for hand-me-downs is great and the traders creative.
So every morning before daybreak, Yaba Market is a carnival bursting
with the sounds of vendors setting up for the day. They haul their goods
in wheelbarrows and on homemade carts, but mostly on their backs,
dumping them on the hard-packed soil to grab a quick bite to eat from
women warming pots of tea and porridge over glowing coals.
The market stretches for miles, spilling out from a sprawling
collection of galvanized sheds and rusting steel buildings. Yaba is not
even among the five biggest markets on the outskirts of greater Lagos,
home to 20 million people.
"Some vendors come here to hustle," Anorue says. "The good vendors know
that if you treat your customers right, they will come back."
In one corner, clothing vendors are clumped around the railroad tracks.
There are 20,000 of them. When the train rumbles through - sometimes
several times a day - vendors scramble to clear their makeshift stalls
from the tracks.
Many have specialties. Izuka Aptazi, 23, operates the Athlete's Foot of
Yaba. Each day, Aptazi, who flaunts a jersey of Philadelphia 76ers guard
Allen Iverson, scours the market for athletic shoes and jerseys bearing
the names of international sports stars. Some vendors sell him jerseys
from their bales at cost. He earns about $30 a month.
A Shaquille O'Neal jersey that costs him $3 can be sold for as much as
$8. In soccer-crazy Nigeria, even poor fans will scrape together a few
dollars for the jerseys of French star Thierry Henry, Senegalese striker
El Hadji Diouf or former Manchester United superstar David Beckham.
Water Eoji, 26, sells tablecloths and curtains at about $2 a yard. He
often knocks on the doors of hotels, offering to outfit their rooms with
drapes that once adorned American homes.
At the bottom of the heap are used underwear vendors such as Teresa
Williams, whose trade is cited by Africans as evidence of how far they
have fallen: How did people get desperate enough, they wonder, to buy
other people's discarded drawers?
Under a multicolored umbrella next to the railroad tracks, Williams
glumly minds her few piles of panties, priced at 25 cents, and
brassieres at 50 cents. She calls out to encourage prospective
customers. But Williams sheepishly acknowledges that she would draw the
line at wearing anything she sells.
Three young toughs strut past, glancing scornfully at her rumpled piles
of garments. When they're a safe distance away, Williams blurts out: "If
you check under their pants, I bet they're wearing used underwear." And
she explodes in laughter.
Minutes later, four young women from Surulere, a nearby neighborhood
known as Nigeria's movie capital, stop by and pick through the pile.
They choose half a dozen pink and black panties.
Nigerians call these places "bend-down boutiques," because customers
often have to stoop to get to the merchandise. But no one minds stooping
if the price is right. And the price is always negotiable.
John Muriamo, a 45-year-old teacher and father of four teenage sons,
arrives ready to bargain hard.
He has the equivalent of $20 in his pants pocket. He is wearing one of
the two white long-sleeve shirts he owns. Both are threadbare. He is
trying to support his family of six on a salary of $325 a year - a
little less than a dollar a day. But, like many Africans, he often is
paid late, if at all.
With sweat rolling down his face in the tropical sun, Muriamo stops at
the booth of Precious Okoyo. He selects a yellow Lakers T-shirt and a
checked Gap shirt for his two older sons, and baggy jeans for his two
younger boys, who are 14 and 15. Finally, for himself, he picks up a
lily-white, long-sleeve Yves Saint Laurent shirt that, with any tie,
could command respect from his students.
Okoyo does some mental calculations and tells him that he owes her
4,200 naira, the equivalent of $28.
"I'll give you 1,800 naira," Muriamo offers, his voice cutting through
the hum of buying and selling.
"Look, Miss Precious, I always buy from you," he pleads. "Am I not your
He makes a final appeal: "Everybody has to live."
"Teacher, make it 2,700 naira and we'll remain friends," Okoyo says.
"But remember, next time it's my turn."
Muriamo hands over the money, grabs the merchandise and thanks Okoyo
with an elaborate handshake. He has a piece of clothing for each of his
four children, a new work shirt and about $2 left. His children will be
happy, and his family will eat tonight.
Like other Nigerian men, Muriamo used to wear the colorful, flowing
Nigerian agbada on special occasions, or when he and his family attended
Sunday services at their Pentecostal church. He cannot remember the last
time he bought one of the traditional robes. Now, his $20 would buy only
a yard or two of locally produced fabric.
"We get better deals because everyone is trying to do some business,"
Muriamo says of the market.
One reason is international trade policy. While Nigerian fabric has
grown scarcer and more expensive, reforms demanded by international
lenders have eliminated Africa's high tariffs on imported clothing,
driving down prices.
After a decade of wearing used clothes from the West, many Africans
find that necessity has become style. Their children no longer want to
wear anything else.
"If they want to look like rap stars and sports stars, we can't
compete," says J.P. Olarewaju, who heads an association of Lagos textile
manufacturers. "The children want to dress in baggy jeans and look like
"It would be the happiest day in my life when secondhand clothing is
truly banned from this country," says Olarewaju, who is wearing a floral
green African suit. He acknowledges that he hasn't been able to keep
even his own children from shopping at the bend-down boutiques.
Nigerian wholesalers evade their country's ban by shipping goods to
neighboring Benin, where a bribe to a customs officer guarantees passage
to Nigeria - and boosts the local economy. Fifteen percent of Benin's
revenue comes from so-called re-exports.
Once in Nigeria, the clothes pass through a chain of middlemen to
markets buzzing with millions of eager customers. Even when Africa's
ferocious noonday sun is beating down on them, buyers and sellers merely
At Yaba Market, shoppers seek out cooler spots; merchants take a break.
Vendors rush in with pots on their heads to serve porridge, greens and
In front of a shed emblazoned with a homemade sign that reads, "Hand of
God: Dealers in All Kinds of Trousers such as Chinos, jeans and
Electronics," young men break out drums and percussion gourds. The music
summons vendors and shoppers. Some dance until they become entranced by
the frenzied beat. Their sweaty bodies convulse like worshipers at a
"Oh God," the young vendors sing, their faces twisted in what could be
ecstasy or pain. "Let good things happen to us."
Life depends - for all the vendors - on a good bale of clothes.
Today, Anorue, who deals exclusively in skirts and suits for
professional women, is smiling. His bale produced three DKNY suits, a
couple of Ann Taylor outfits and some Italian brands he hasn't seen
"My customers are very demanding," he says. "They are going to be very
The next bundle might be different. But the clothes won't be
"This is like the palm oil business," Anorue says, referring to the
lucrative trade that squeezes cooking oil from palm tree parts.
"Nothing, not even the husk, is wasted."
About this series
The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in dire poverty has
nearly doubled in the last two decades. Times staff writer Davan Maharaj
and photographer Francine Orr traveled the continent over nearly two
years to chronicle the continual struggle to survive on less than a
dollar a day. The six
articles in the series:
PART 1: Sunday -- Eking out
PART 2: Monday -- Staving off
PART 3: Today -- Settling for
PART 4: Living in 100 square feet.
PART 5: Locked out of school.
PART 6: Surviving AIDS.
On the Web:
More photos, narrated reports by the reporter and photographer,
previous articles in the series and
information on how to help can be found on The Times website at:
Merced County Association of Governments
369 West 18th Street
Merced CA 95340
209-723-3153, extension 315
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