We have a war on our hands once again, and this time it looks like we are going to be fighting over dead white people’s clothes.
In 2017 a number of East African states imposed varying degrees of controls against the importation of used clothing from America and Europe, some arguing in favour of promoting and protecting our own local textile industries, others saying it is undignified for our people to be wearing clothes that have been worn by unknown people elsewhere.
These clothing items have indeed invaded Africa. Everywhere you travel on the continent you will see stacks of all kinds of textile in varying states of freshness (or lack thereof), ranging from the passable — which you may want to try on — to the disgusting types which look like they have been used as mops in a bathroom.
These items have been with us for quite some time, and our people have even found names for them. In some communities they are called dead white men’s clothes.
Down in Mozambique they are known as roupas de calamidade or clothes of calamity. In my village they used to be known as Akafa ntwigana (when he died we were the same size). In Kiswahili, generally they are dubbed mitumba, a Lingala word meaning dead body.
Our poverty has brought us to this place. We cannot afford to buy new clothes, so we feed an industry that thrives on discarded wares, much as we are used (sic) to used cars, television sets, home furniture, etc. We are a used-products people. Even the drugs in many of our pharmacies are used, in the sense they have passed their use-by date.
There is a sense in which we incline to support the used-clothes ban, for the two reasons stated above.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who rides a high horse when it comes to Africa’s dignity insists on the need to restore the self-esteem of the African, which is important in enhancing our flagging self confidence. All the members of the East African Community have been looking at opportunities to industrialise their economies, and the textile industry looks like a quick win.
But this determination to free ourselves from the shame of these hand-me-downs is already pitting us against the might of the United States, which sees the ban as an attack on its jobs.
An organisation calling itself SMART (Secondary Materials and Recycled Textile Association) has been crying foul, and the US government has responded by threatening to cut our countries out of Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). Why? Because the SMART guys stand to lose about 40,000 jobs if we ban the importation of secondhand clothes.
So, what is the deal here? That we agree to continue losing the jobs we could have had in textile factories so that we do not lose the jobs we are promised through Agoa? No one seems to know what the tradeoff is between the two, but it smacks of clothing imperialism for me.
It reminds me of the British forcing China to allow the importation of opium in the 19th century to the extent of fighting two wars in defence of the “right” of the British to sell opium in order to make money for the Indian Raj. It was also the British who forced Indians to abandon their handlooms in favour of the textile mills of Manchester and Stockport.
Our governments have to act smart. I do not believe that the advantages they get from Agoa are sufficient for them to forego the economic and technological gains inherent in a robust industrialisation programme, especially if it is conceived as an integration endeavour for the regional economic bloc and, eventually the whole of Africa.
Also, it may be important to proceed gradually, step by step, so that we do not impose total bans on imports before we provide alternatives for the poor who cannot afford the luxury of new clothes.
The ban could be smartly targeted; for instance, we could start by completely outlawing the importation of intimate clothing such as underwear, which could easily act as transmitters of vectors of dangerous ailments. There is also the “dignity” thing about wanting to protect your most intimate self from foreign things.
The Native Americans were partly decimated from infections brought to their continent in used clothing imported from a diseased Europe.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]