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Second-hand is new way of life

LAGOS, NIGERIA — LAGOS, Nigeria - Tossed off a flatbed truck, a 100-pound bale of used underwear, 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 - such as the faded leather bomber jacket once worn by an American high-schooler named Tiffany. That piece now hangs on the premium rack in his 5-foot-by-5-foot stall with a $25 price tag.

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"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 Westerners.

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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 are shipped and resold here. Used vehicles imported from Japan dot African roads.

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

It has a long-term cost: The continent is losing the capacity to produce its own clothing. Labor is cheap, but 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 shut as well. Thousands have lost their jobs.

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"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 second-hand clothes, you become a dumping ground."

The used clothes most often start out in the United States. 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 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.

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Many vendors 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 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.

John Muriamo, a 45-year-old teacher and father of four teenage sons, arrives at Yaba ready to bargain hard.

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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. 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.

No response.

"Look, Miss Precious, I always buy from you," he pleads. "Am I not your best customer?" He makes a final appeal: "Everybody has to live."

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"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.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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