shopping at the market...
March 31, 2002
How Susie Bayer's T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama's Back
By GEORGE PACKER
f you've ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are that you've dressed an African. All over Africa, people are wearing what Americans once wore and no longer want. Visit the continent and you'll find faded remnants of secondhand clothing in the strangest of places. The ''Let's Help Make Philadelphia the Fashion Capital of the World'' T-shirt on a Malawian laborer. The white bathrobe on a Liberian rebel boy with his wig and automatic rifle. And the muddy orange sweatshirt on the skeleton of a small child, lying on its side in a Rwandan classroom that has become a genocide memorial.
A long chain of charity and commerce binds the world's richest and poorest people in accidental intimacy. It's a curious feature of the global age that hardly anyone on either end knows it.
A few years ago, Susie Bayer bought a T-shirt for her workouts with the personal trainer who comes regularly to her apartment on East 65th Street in Manhattan. It was a pale gray cotton shirt, size large, made in the U.S.A. by JanSport, with the red and black logo of the University of Pennsylvania on its front. Over time, it got a few stains on it, and Bayer, who is 72, needed more drawer space, so last fall she decided to get rid of the shirt. She sent it, along with a few other T-shirts and a couple of silk nightgowns, to the thrift shop that she has been donating her clothes to for the past 40 years.
Americans buy clothes in disposable quantities -- $165 billion worth last year. Then, like Susie Bayer, we run out of storage space, or we put on weight, or we get tired of the way we look in them, and so we pack the clothes in garbage bags and lug them off to thrift shops.
When I told Susie Bayer that I was hoping to follow her T-shirt to Africa, she cried, ''I know exactly what you're doing!'' As a girl, her favorite movie at the Loews on West 83rd was ''Tales of Manhattan'' -- the story of a coat that passes from Charles Boyer through a line of other people, including Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson, bringing tragedy or luck, before finally falling out of the sky with thousands of dollars in the pockets and landing on the dirt plot of a sharecropper played by Paul Robeson.
Bayer writes off about $1,000 a year in donations, and the idea that some of it ends up on the backs of Africans delights her. ''Maybe our clothes change the lives of these people,'' she said. ''This is Susie Bayer's statement. No one would agree with me, but maybe some of the vibrations are left over in the clothing. Maybe some of the good things about us can carry through.'' She went on: ''I'd like us to be less selfish. Because we have been very greedy. Very greedy. Americans think they can buy happiness. They can't. The happiness comes in the giving, and that's why I love the thrift shop.''
Twenty-four blocks north, up First Avenue, the Call Again Thrift Shop is run by two blunt-spoken women named Virginia Edelman and Marilyn Balk. They sit in their depressing back office, surrounded by malfunctioning TV's and used blenders and a rising sea of black garbage bags.
From a heap of clothing in front of her, Edelman extracts a baseball shirt that says ''Yorkville'' across its front. ''Look at this. Who would want to buy something like this? It's just junk. Junky junky junk. This stuff bagged in a garbage bag, it's so wrinkled we don't even look at it. This is a Peter Pan costume or something -- I don't know what the hell it is.''
Edelman and Balk have been toiling at Call Again for two decades. Their dank little basement, crammed with last year's mildewing clothes, has no more space. The storage shed out back looks ready to explode. The women inspect every item that comes in, searching for any reason to get rid of it. Their shop space is limited, and their customers are relentlessly picky. This being the Upper East Side, the store displays a size-4 Kenneth Cole leather woman's suit, worn once or not at all, that retails for $600 but is selling here for $200.
Edelman and Balk sit neck-deep in the runoff of American prosperity, struggling to direct the flow and keep it from backing up and drowning them. ''It's endless,'' Balk says. ''Yesterday we got, I don't know, five donations. It's like seven maids and seven grooms trying to sweep the seas. Or Sisyphus, was it? Trying to roll the rock?''
One day a few years ago, relief came to them in the form of a young man named Eric Stubin, who runs Trans-Americas Trading Company, a textile recycling factory in Brooklyn. He said that he was willing to send a truck every Tuesday to haul away what the women didn't want and that he would pay them three cents a pound for it. ''You never heard two people happier to hear from someone in your life,'' Edelman says. Now every month 1,200 or 1,300 pounds of rejected donations are trucked to Brooklyn, and every three months Call Again gets a check for $100 or so, money that goes to charity.
Edelman estimates that more than a third of the donations that Call Again receives ends up in Trans-Americas' recycling factory. Goodwill Industries, which handles more than a billion pounds a year in North America, puts its figure at 50 percent. Some sources estimate that of the 2.5 billion pounds of clothes that Americans donate each year, as much as 80 percent gets trucked off to places like Trans-Americas.
Though the proceeds go to charity programs, these numbers are not readily publicized. Susie Bayer isn't the typical donor. ''Everybody who gives us things thinks that it's the best thing in the world,'' Edelman says. ''They feel as if they're doing a wonderful thing for charity. And they do it for themselves -- for the tax write-off. Unfortunately, I don't think people know what charity is anymore. They would be horrified if they thought that they bought a suit at Barneys or Bergdorf's for $1,100 and we chucked it for three cents a pound because of a torn lining.''
Susie Bayer's T-shirt goes straight into the reject pile. ''We have a thousand of them,'' Virginia Edelman says. ''Get it out of here.''
This is where the trail grows tricky, for what had been charitable suddenly crosses a line that tax law and moral convention think inviolable -- it turns commercial, and no one likes to talk very much about what happens next. A whiff of secrecy and even shame still clings to the used- clothing trade, left over from the days of shtetl Jews and Lower East Side rag dealers. The used-clothing firms are mostly family-owned, and the general feeling seems to be that the less the public knows, the better.
The owners of Trans-Americas, Edward and Eric Stubin, father and son, are more open than most in the industry, though they wouldn't share their annual sales figures with me. In 2001, used clothing was one of America's major exports to Africa, with $61.7 million in sales. Latin America and Asia have formidable trade barriers. Some African countries -- Nigeria, Eritrea, South Africa -- ban used clothing in order to protect their own domestic textile industries, which creates a thriving and quite open black market. For years, Africa has been Trans-Americas' leading overseas market for used clothing, absorbing two-thirds of its exports.
''There'll always be demand for secondhand clothing,'' says Eric Stubin, who reads widely about Africa, ''because unfortunately the world is becoming a poorer and poorer place. Used clothing is the only affordable means for these people to put quality clothing on their body.''
Edward Stubin agrees. ''I have a quote: 'We can deliver a garment to Africa for less than the cost of a stamp.'''
Trans-Americas' five-story brick building stands a block from the East River wharves in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Inside, 60,000 pounds of clothes a day pour down the slides from the top floor, hurry along conveyor belts where Hispanic women stand and fling pieces into this bin or down that chute, fall through openings from floor to floor and land in barrels and cages, where they are then pressure-packed into clear plastic four-foot-high bales and tied with metal strapping -- but never washed. Whatever charming idiosyncrasy a pair of trousers might have once possessed is annihilated in the mass and crush. Not only does the clothing cease to be personal, it ceases to be clothing. Watching the process of sorting and grading feels a little like a visit to the slaughterhouse.
''We get the good, the bad and the ugly,'' Eric Stubin tells me as we tour the factory. ''Ripped sweaters, the occasional sweater with something disgusting on it, the pair of underwear you don't want to talk about. We're getting what the thrifts can't sell.'' There are more than 300 export categories at the factory, but the four essential classifications are ''Premium,'' ''Africa A,'' ''Africa B'' and ''Wiper Rag.'' ''Premium'' goes to Asia and Latin America. ''Africa A'' -- a garment that has lost its brightness -- goes to the better-off African countries like Kenya. ''Africa B'' -- a stain or small hole -- goes to the continent's disaster areas, its Congos and Angolas. By the time a shirt reaches Kisangani or Huambo, it has been discarded by its owner, rejected at the thrift shop and graded two steps down by the recycler.
Standing in Trans-Americas' office, with wooden airplane propellers hanging next to photographs from Africa, Eric Stubin casts a professional eye on Susie Bayer's T-shirt. In a week, a 54,000-pound container of used clothes will set sail on the steamship Claudia, destination Mombasa, Kenya. Stubin spots a pink stain on the belly of the T-shirt below the university logo and tosses the shirt aside. ''Africa,'' he says.
ut there are many Africas, and used clothing carries a different meaning in each of them. Christianity tenderized most of the continent for the foreign knife, but the societies of Muslim West Africa and Somalia are bits of gristle that have proved more resistant to Western clothes. In warlord-ridden, destitute Somalia, used clothing is called, rather contemptuously, huudhaydh -- as in, ''Who died?'' A woman in Kenya who once sold used dresses told me that not long ago Kenyans assumed the clothing was removed from dead people and washed it carefully to avoid skin diseases. In Togo, it is called ''dead white man's clothing.'' In Sierra Leone, it's called ''junks'' and highly prized. In Rwanda, used clothing is known by the word for ''choose,'' and in Uganda, it used to be called ''Rwanda,'' which is where it came from illegally until Uganda opened its doors to what is now called mivumba.
At the vast Owino market in downtown Kampala, Uganda's capital, you can find every imaginable garment, all of it secondhand. Boys sit on hills of shoes, shining them to near-newness, hawkers shout prices, shoppers break a sweat bargaining, porters barge through with fresh bales on their heads. When the wire is cut and the bale bursts open like a pinata, a mob of retailers descends in a ferocious rugby scrum to fight over first pick. Between the humanity and the clothes there is hardly room to move. The used-clothing market is the densest, most electric section of Owino -- the only place where ordinary Africans can join the frenetic international ranks of consumers.
I knew what this thrice-rejected clothing had gone through to get here, but somehow ''Africa'' looks much better in Africa -- the colors brighter, the shapes shapelier. A dress that moved along a Brooklyn conveyor belt like a gutted chicken becomes a dress again when it has been charcoal-ironed and hangs sunlit in a Kampala vendor's stall, and a customer holds it to her chest with all the frowning interest of a Call Again donor shopping at Bergdorf-Goodman. Some of the stock looks so good that it gets passed off as new in the fashionable shops on Kampala Road. Government ministers, bodyguards in tow, are known to buy their suits at Owino. Once in Africa, the clothes undergo a transformation like inanimate objects coming to life in a fairy tale. Human effort and human desire work the necessary magic.
My guide through Owino is a radio-talk-show host named Anne Kizza, a sophisticated woman who knows what she wants in dance wear from reading South African fashion magazines. She always goes to the same vendors, whose merchandise and prices are to her liking; while I am with her, she buys a slim lime-green dress for the equivalent of 60 cents and a black skirt for 30 cents. Price tags are still stapled to some items -- Thrift Store, $3.99, All Sales Final'' -- but just as Americans don't know what happens beyond the thrift shop, Africans don't know the origin of the stuff. Most Ugandans assume that the clothes were sold by the American owner. When I explain to a retailer named Fred Tumushabe, who specializes in men's cotton shirts, that the process starts with a piece of clothing that has been given away, he finds the whole business a monstrous injustice. ''Then why are they selling to us?'' he asks.
The big importers have their shops on Nakivubo Road, which is a hairy 10-minute walk through traffic from Owino. Trans-Americas' buyer in Kampala is a Pakistani named Hussein Ali Merchant. He is 40, with a beard and a paunch and a sad, gentle manner. A diabetic cigarette smoker, he seems to expect to die any day and extends the same good-natured fatalism to his business. ''It's a big chain,'' he says, and all the links beyond Merchant are forged on credit. ''Sometimes the people disappear, sometimes they die. Each year I'm getting the loss of at least $30,000. Last year a customer died of yellow fever. His whole body was yellow. He died in Jinja. The money is gone. Forget about it, heh-heh-heh.''
We drink tea in his dark shop among unsold bales stacked 20 feet high. Five or six years ago, when there were only a few clothing shops on Nakivubo Road, his annual profit was about $75,000. Today, with more than 50 stores, his profits are much lower. Merchant is one of Africa's rootless Asian capitalists. Before coming to Uganda in 1995, he twice lost all his money to looting soldiers in Zaire. Between disasters he went to Australia and pumped gas for three months, but he fled back to Africa before his visa expired. ''I've been sitting like this for 20 years here. In America you have to work hard, no money, things are very expensive. Here, it's easy. I want to do hard work in America? For what?'' Merchant has a frightening vision of himself squeezing price tags onto convenience store stock at midnight in Kentucky. As for Karachi, it terrifies him, and he goes back only once a year to see his family, his doctor and his tailor. ''I'm a prince here,'' he says. ''I'm a king here in Africa.''
Merchant's warehouse -- my go down,'' he calls it in local slang -- is in an industrial quarter of Kampala. On a Saturday afternoon in December, the truck carrying the Trans-Americas shipping container with Susie Bayer's T-shirt pulls in after its long drive from the port of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. Seven customers -- wholesalers from all over Uganda -- anxiously wait along with Merchant. Among them is a heavy woman in her 40's with a flapper's bob and a look of profound disgust on her fleshy face. Her name is Proscovia Batwaula, but everyone calls her Mama Prossy. As the bales start leaving the container on the heads of young porters, Mama Prossy literally throws her weight around to claim the ones she wants. Merchant, standing back from the flurry, murmurs that a week before, she bloodied another woman's nose in a scuffle over a bale of Canadian cotton skirts.
Eric Stubin has stenciled my initials on the bale containing Susie Bayer's T-shirt. But I never imagined 540 bales coming off the truck at a frantic clip, turned at all angles on young men's heads, amid the chaos of bellowing wholesalers in the glare of the afternoon sun. Finding the T-shirt suddenly seems impossible. When I try to explain my purpose to Mama Prossy, she answers without taking her eyes off the precious merchandise leaving the truck: ''What gain will I have? Why should I accommodate you?'' She scoffs at the idea of publicity benefits in New York, and as bales disappear into wholesalers' trucks, I start getting a bit desperate.
Then Mama Prossy learns that I teach in American universities. She badly wants her son to attend one; for the first time she takes an interest in me. Moments later, more good luck. Merchant spots my bale coming off the truck, the initials ''GP'' all of 3 inches high.
Mama Prossy insists on the right to tear it open and have a look. The used-clothing trade in Africa is fraught with suspicion and rumor and fear of bad bales. Wholesalers bribe the importers' laborers to give them first crack at the most promising stock, based on the look of things through clear plastic. But what Mama Prossy extracts from the top of my bale makes her lip curl in ever-deepening disgust. It is a pink woman's T-shirt. Women's clothes are not supposed to be mixed in with men's. ''I will lose money,'' she announces, and pulls out another piece. ''Is this for a fat child? Where are they in Africa? We don't have fat children here in Uganda.''
She is angling for a price cut from Merchant, who reminds her that she still owes him 50,000 Ugandan shillings ($30) from last week. She starts calling him ''boss.'' After all, he is higher on the chain, and she needs him more than he needs her. They settle on the equivalent of $60 for the bale, a price that amounts to 19 cents a shirt. Merchant has paid Trans-Americas around 13 cents each, excluding freight charges; he will have little or no profit on the bale, which was graded ''mixed,'' Africa A and B.
Mama Prossy turns to me. ''You say this bale is best quality, better than the others?'' It wasn't what I'd said, but I keep my mouth shut. ''I doubt,'' says Mama Prossy, looking me over with quite naked contempt. ''We shall see.''
Kampala journalist named Michael Wakabi told me that Kampala has become ''a used culture.'' The cars are used -- they arrive from Japan with broken power windows and air-conditioners, so Ugandan drivers bake in the sun. Used furniture from Europe lines the streets in Kampala. The Ugandan Army occupies part of neighboring Congo with used tanks and aircraft from Ukraine. And the traditional Ugandan dress made from local cotton, called gomesi, is as rare as the mountain gorilla. To dress African, Ugandans have to have money.
Twenty years ago, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, all the village women wore printed cloth, and many of the men wore embroidered shirts of the same material. The village had at least half a dozen tailors. The mother of eight who lived next door dreamed of making clothes in her own market stall and asked me to help her buy a hand-cranked sewing machine. Used clothes were sold in limited and fairly expensive supply; a villager wore the same piece every day as it disintegrated on his body.
Then the floodgates opened. With the liberalization in Africa of the rules governing used-clothing imports in the past 10 years, Africans, who keep getting poorer, can now afford to wear better than rags. Many told me that without used clothes they would go naked, which, as one pointed out, is not in their traditional culture. And yet they know that something precious has been lost.
''These secondhand clothes are a problem,'' a young driver named Robert Ssebunya told me. ''Ugandan culture will be dead in 10 years, because we are all looking to these Western things. Ugandan culture is dying even now. It is dead. Dead and buried.'' The ocean of used clothes that now covers the continent plays its part in telling Africans that their own things are worthless, that Africans can do nothing for themselves.
But the intensity of the used-clothing section in every market I entered suggests that if something called ''Ugandan culture'' is dying, something else is taking its place. The used clothes create a new culture here, one of furious commercial enterprise and local interpretation of foreign styles, cut-rate and imitative and vibrant.
For all this, Uganda is quite capable of mass-producing its own clothes. On the banks of the White Nile, at its source in Jinja on Lake Victoria, a textile company called Southern Range Nyanza uses local cotton, considered the second-best in the world after Egyptian, to manufacture 13 million yards of fabric a year. With the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 opening the American market, Southern Range has begun exporting men's cotton shirts to New York -- so shirts that begin in Uganda might make a double crossing of the ocean and end there as well.
Viren Thakkar, Southern Range's Indian managing director, insists that he can sell the same shirts in Uganda for $3 -- less than twice the cost of a used shirt -- but the dumping of foreign clothes makes it impossible for him to break into the market. ''The country has to decide what they want to do,'' he says, ''whether they want to use secondhand clothes continually, or whether they want to bring industry and grow the economy.'' Globalization has helped to destroy Uganda's textile industry, but Ugandans simply don't believe that their own factory could make clothes as durable and stylish as the stuff that comes in bales from overseas.
In Jinja's market, Mama Prossy sits like a queen on her wooden storage bin and watches the morning trade. At her feet, half a dozen retailers poke through the innards of the Trans-Americas bale. ''You see how you are picking very, very old material,'' she scolds me. ''And you are mixing ladies'. My friend, why are you mixing ladies'? And too much is white.''
''I told you,'' I say, ''I don't work for them.''
''But you put your initials on it.''
She will lose money on my bale, Mama Prossy insists; she will never buy Trans-Americas again. But the entries she makes in her ledger book show a profit of $98 -- more than 150 percent.
Her retailers sort the T-shirts by their own three-tier grading system. Susie Bayer's is rated second-class and goes for 60 cents to a slender, grave young man in slightly tattered maroon trousers who seems intimidated by the queen on her throne. His name is Philip Nandala, and he is the next-to-last link in the chain. Philip is an itinerant peddler of used clothes, the closest thing in Uganda to the 19th-century rag dealer with his horse-drawn cart -- except that Philip transports his 50-pound bag from market to market by minibus or on his own head, five days a week on the road. ''If I stay at home,'' he says, ''I can die of poverty.''
His weekly odyssey begins in Kamu, a trading center on a plateau high above the plains that stretch north all the way to Sudan. I follow Philip and his bag of clothes through the market, watching him dive into one scrum after another as bales burst open. Out comes children's rummage, and Philip fights off several women for a handful of little T-shirts that go into his bag: ''Ms. Y's Goofy Goof Troop,'' ''2 BUSY + 2 SMART for TOBACCO 4H'' and ''Future Harvard Freshman.''
The sun beats down, and Scovia Kuloba, the woman who introduced Philip to the trade, sits under an umbrella among mounds of clothes. Her barker scolds at the market crowd: ''People leave the clothes to buy fish! They let their children go naked! This white man brought the clothes with him -- don't you want to buy?''
When I explain to Scovia Kuloba that her goods come from American charities, she stares in disbelief. ''Sure? I thought maybe we Africans are the only ones who suffer. The people from there -- I thought they were well off. I think they don't even work.''
Her teenage daughter, Susan, whose braids and clothes look straight out of Brooklyn, adds: ''I don't want to be poor, you just cry all the time. I hate the sun. I hate Africans.'' She'll only marry a mzungu, she says, because she knows from movies like ''Titanic'' and ''Why Do Fools Fall in Love'' that white men are always faithful, unlike Africans.
Slowly, I become aware of the sound of amplified American voices nearby, along with gunshots and screeching tires. Next to the used-clothing market, an action flick plays on video, with speakers hooked up outside to attract customers. In a dark little room, two dozen adults and children, who have paid 6 cents apiece, sit riveted to ''Storm Catcher,'' starring Dolph Lundgren.
The end of the road is a small hilltop town, green and windswept, called Kapchorwa, about 110 miles northeast of Mama Prossy's stall in downtown Jinja. Clouds hide 14,000-foot Mt. Elgon and, beyond it, Kenya. Philip spreads his wares on a plastic sheet at the foot of a brick wall and works hard all day, a tape measure around his neck. Poor rural Ugandans, the chain's last links, crowd close, arguing and pleading, but Philip is now the one with power, and he barely stirs from his asking price. One young man comes back half a dozen times to try on the same gray hooded coat. It fits perfectly, and it has arrived just in time for the chilly season that is blowing in. But Philip wants $4.70, and the customer only has $1.75.
''This coat is as thick as fish soup,'' Philip says. ''The material lasts 20 years.''
''You are killing me,'' the customer says. ''The money is killing me.''
''I am not killing you. I bought it at a high price, I ask a high price.''
The customer finally walks away, and Philip returns the coat to his pile. The thrift shop's price tag is still stapled to the back: ''$1.'' At the sight of it, I suddenly feel sad. I think of Virginia Edelman and Marilyn Balk back on the Upper East Side, tossing out truckloads of the stuff, desperate to get rid of it. I remember the torrent pouring down the chutes at Trans-Americas' factory in Brooklyn. On balance, in spite of its problems, I have become a convert to used clothing. Africans want it. It gives them dignity and choice. But now that I have seen them prize so highly, and with such profound effects, what we throw away without a thought, the trail of Susie Bayer's T-shirt only seems to tell one story, a very old one, about the unfairness of the world as it is.
The T-shirt is buried deep in Philip's pile. My flight back to New York is leaving in four days, and I am concerned about missing it. So I reach into the pile, wanting to position the T-shirt more advantageously. As soon as I touch it, the shirt flies out of my hand. An old man in an embroidered Muslim cap and djellaba, who is missing his lower front teeth, holds it up for inspection. Tracing with his finger, he puzzles out the words printed in red and black around an academic insignia: ''University Pennsylvania,'' he says. He dances away, brandishing the shirt in his fist. Ninety cents is his first offer, but Philip won't budge from $1.20. Eventually, the old man pays. Yusuf Mama, 71, husband of 4, father of 32, has found what he wants.
I ask him why, of all the shirts in the pile, he has chosen this one. ''It can help me,'' he says vaguely. ''I have only one shirt.''
Later, when I tell the story to people back in Kampala, they shake their heads. Yusuf Mama wanted Susie Bayer's T-shirt, they say, because a mzungu had touched it.
George Packer is the author of ''Blood of the Liberals.'' His last feature article for the magazine was on Schools Chancellor Harold Levy.
Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero. � Story people
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