Friday, June 04, 2004

When I first read George Packer's story of his life as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s in West Africa, The Village of Waiting, one of the stories that stuck with me was the tale about the "dead yovo market":
At every market in Togo an area was set aside for the Goodwill clothing brought in on ships from the West: faded jeans and corduroys with the ridges worn off, heaps of T-shirts announcing "Harvard Law" or "The Incredible Hulk," summer dresses, laceless shoes without mates. The clothes fetched good prices for the men who had paid bribes to oversee their unloading at the Lom´┐Ż docks, then for a succession of middlemen, and finally for the traders -- usually Moslems from the north or Niger -- who sold them in the villages. Charitable donations became the hottest fashion here. Items as ridiculous as fur-lined winter hats with earflaps were snatched up. Coming from overseas, they carried the prestige of the yovo [i.e. whites, Westerners]. In fact this minimarket had the name "dead yovo market" -- since no one alive and in his right mind would actually give away perfectly good clothes to people he didn't know and would never get money or thanks from.
I thought of this immediately upon reading the story in the New York Times today on attempts by Ugandan textile manufacturers to ban the dead yovo market.
The rich world's hand-me-downs offer visitors some of Africa's more peculiar sights. One afternoon in Kampala, Uganda's lively, diesel-fume-laden capital, a young man wore a black T-shirt that boasted: "I am what you fear the most: United States Marine." Another proclaimed its owner's allegiance to the "Watkins Warriors," presumably some small-town sports team.

The scene repeats itself in towns and villages across Africa, from Mozambique in the south to Mali in the north, thanks to donated clothing from the West that is sold by the charitable entities that receive it to exporters, pressed into bales and shipped to Africa. Though it starts as charity, the declared value of American secondhand clothing exported to Africa was $59.3 million in 2002, according to the International Trade Commission. . . .

Aggrey Awori, a member of Parliament who represents a cotton-growing constituency in Uganda near Lake Victoria, is pushing a three-year phase-out of mivumba, a plan he calls "a way of phasing out the culture of used clothing."

And Charlotte Kukunda, an official with the Ugandan Manufacturers Association, said: "The secondhand sector employs enough people to make this a chicken-and-egg question. Who should government policy work for?"
Interestingly, several countries in Africa including South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea have banned imports of used clothing precisely to give a boost to native textile industries. Here we see played out again the old combat between having wealth for today and having the power to produce for tomorrow -- in Friedrich List's language, the cosmopolitans versus the nationalists.

And did you know that a kid in Africa may very well be wearing your old Spice Girls t-shirt today?

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