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 Westerners.
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.”
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 best customer?”
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 their heroes.
“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 pause.
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 meat.
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 gospel revival.
“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 before.
“My customers are very demanding,” he says. “They are going to be very happy.”
The next bundle might be different. But the clothes won’t be discarded.
“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.”