In Ghana, one often hears the shrill shout of “adieye”! from seamstresses and tailors walking around, sewing machine on shoulders or head. Many West African countries have expertise in textile craft such as weaving, dyeing and printing that go back centuries.
Adieye represents a tradition of generations skilled in mending or fixing clothes on the cheap and at a great convenience to customers.
They get clothes “functional” by reducing measurement sizes of “hand-me-downs” or adding inches to the clothing of a little one rapidly growing fat on a constant diet of banku, Ghana’s ugali.
My mother made her children’s clothes, sketching patterns of measurements on sturdy brown khaki paper. The result was a dress or shirt fitting the wearer perfectly.
In the developed world, people pay huge amounts of money for bespoke clothing – which means customised clothes specifically tailored for them.
In West Africa, like it was when my mother made our clothes, bespoke clothing is the norm, rather than the exception. West Africa boasts seamstresses or tailors determining bespoke fashion trends, worn by everyone.
My mother was not a commercial seamstress. Mothers often made clothes for their children, and also taught them to mend clothes.
My generation did not. When I got my first salary as an untrained teacher, my colleagues and I headed out to the mitumba (used clothing) market to kit up.
We called the task of sifting through while standing waist-deep in mountains of mitumba “mining”. We chose clothes resembling those we saw on television. We ignored the national debate on the indignity of Africans wearing clothes previously worn by others.
What one calls something clearly has connotations for the use found for it. In Ghana, the term for used clothes implies the wearing of a dead person’s clothes.
We created whole mitumba wardrobes with 300 shillings or $3. One day, I “mined” an eight-shilling dress. On those mitumba heaps, we “mined’ away our dignity and identity.
I remembered the art of “mining” this week when Tanzania and Kenya almost quarrelled over a Kenyan legislator’s statements asking foreign traders to leave or face forcible removal.
The legislator was arrested and Tanzania summoned Kenya’s diplomatic representative in Dar es Salaam to protest. Successful conflict resolution addresses the root causes of a problem – in this case, the mitumba trade the legislator was trying to protect.
A study conducted by Dr Andrew Brooks and Prof David Simon at the University of London titled Unraveling the Relationship between Used-Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries established that the majority of donated, free mitumba from the developed world is sold to “secondhand clothing merchants whose key market is sub-Saharan Africa, where a third of all globally donated clothes are sold.”
The key words here are “clothes,” “donated,” “free,” and then “sold.” The paper says “300 bales of secondhand clothing can be sold in Africa for around £25,000 while using only £2,000 as transport.”
The mitumba industry, in addition to used clothes, brings in carpets and rugs. It devastated the East African textile industry destroying, among other manufacturers, Rift Valley Textiles (Rivatex) and Kisumu Cotton Mills. It drove thousands of farmers, factory workers, seamstresses and tailors out of business.
Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan have decided that for local industries to grow, importation of mitumba has to stop.
The United States, the world’s biggest exporter of mitumba, said it would review its trade relationships with the countries proposing the bans, which “imposed a significant economic hardship on the US clothing industry.”
Rivatex only reopened last month. However, Africa can look elsewhere. Generations of families spanning more than 600 years have perfected indigo cloth-making skills in Kano, Nigeria. The handspun cloth is dyed in pits, such as those in Kofar Mata.
There is now a conscious move in the developed world to recycle mitumba amid a realisation that old clothes are difficult to decompose, because of processes such as bleaching and printing used to create them.
Polyester, nylon and acrylic are made from a type of plastic that takes hundreds of years to biodegrade. Getting consumers in the first world to buy and dispose less would help.
There is a high demand in Africa for especially West African fabric and fashion. With the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement meant to create a tariff-free continent, grow local businesses, boost intra-African trade and create jobs, can West Africa produce clothes for large-scale distribution in East Africa?
Will we soon hear the cry of Adieye! on East African streets?
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]