A woman displays her wares for sale in a market at Kenya's capital, Nairobi. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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“Dead White Man’s Clothes”: The language of second-hand clothes in Africa

Second-hand clothes carry both the individual and collective identity of their origin, that is, the fashion, style, and aesthetics. They go by different names in different parts of Africa; mitumba in Kenya, obroni wawu in Ghana, in Zimbabwe mabhero or bhero, calamidades in Mozambique, hudheey/hudeey in Somalia, abloni or sogava in Togo — these names carry the societal or cultural meanings.

The Burdens by John Ruganda follows the life of Wamala, a simple teacher catapulted from a life of ‘thumbing pieces of chalk’, on the eve of independence, to a government minister. But the luxuries of ministerial largesse are short lived. Over ambition induces his downfall. He loses his position and soon slides into abject poverty. He lives in denial, unable to come to terms with fall. A condition bedevilling most African countries that boasted enviable growth rates in the immediate post-independence period.

In fits of humour and eccentricity, John Ruganda — one of the greatest writers in post-independent Uganda — paints Wamala with some of the most inventive dialogue in African theatre, an irritable man without nothing to his name but a nagging wife, Tinka, and two children, Kaija and Nyakake. His life is one of reminisces, daydreams and reveries. He floods his refusal to come to terms with drunkenness and adultery.

In one of the scenes, Tinka, in the thrust of regaling the children with The Tale of Ngoma’s beautiful gourd, is interrupted by a drunk Wamala, dragging his feet back from the dens. Wamala walks in with a bed. He has bought a second-hand safari bed. A reasonably good bed, he thinks, and is pleased with the achievement: a responsible husband buying a bed for his son. But Tinka is displeased, at worst indifferent to his purchase and excitement. She tells Wamala that “we are fed up with second-hand things” and shuts off to her husband’s “the bed is still in reasonable condition. Strong and comfortable… it’ll excite the boy out of his senses.” The sweet-talk falls on deaf ears.

The dialogue between Tinka and Wamala on second-hand things is reminiscent of the heated debate on second-hand clothes in Kenya, and in most African countries. Tinka wants new things, she is beset by the indignity of nth-hand things, but Wamala, though nostalgic of a luxuriant past, is poor and can only afford second-hand things. Wamala’s family is like most African countries, trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

I wanted to understand how African countries view second-hand clothes, from the language and definitions attached to these items. Language is the carrier and container of culture. Human beings store their knowledge and experiences in language. Words as containers of meanings is what is called the Conduit Metaphor in linguistics. 

Second-hand clothes go by different names in different parts of Africa and these names carry the societal or cultural meanings

When people speak, when people name things, they insert their mental contents, be it feelings, thoughts, meanings, or concepts, into containers that we call words, phrases, or concepts. When people hear, or read, they extract these mental contents from these containers.

Second-hand clothes go by different names in different parts of Africa. These names carry the societal or cultural meanings. In my readings, I found out that these names were carriers of the sentiments around the history of transactions between the West and African countries. The words are an image of the West-Africa relationship, and their specificity of meanings also hold the psychological desire for an alternate kind of interaction.

In addition to my readings, I made a tweet to collect information on the diversity of references. I will reproduce some of the words and phrases from different tweeps across the continent.

Second-hand clothes as “bundles” or “bales”

In Kenya, second-hand clothes are called mitumba, a Swahili word meaning bundles or bales, and originally meant plastic-wrapped packages of used clothing from wealthy countries. In Zimbabwe, the name mabhero means bales of second-hand clothes.

Second-hand clothes as “dead white man’s clothes”

In Ghana, second-hand clothes are called obroni wawu, meaning dead white men’s clothes or clothes from those who died in Europe.

Karen Tranberg Hansen in “Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing in Zambia” lists other names encountered when writing the book. In the 1970s, second hand clothes were called Vietnam by people in Kivu, the eastern part of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was believed that the donations were originally owned by American soldiers who died in the Vietnam war. Most of these donations were army surplus from the United States.

In Ghana, second-hand clothes are called obroni wawu, meaning dead white men’s clothes or clothes from those who died in Europe

In Mozambique, in the 1980s, they were called calamidades, meaning calamity, since they were donated by the West during the civil war.

The Somali also call second-hand clothes hudheey/hudeey, derived from the English phrase “who died?”, implying that such clothes are collected from dead white men and brought to Africa.

Second-hand clothes as “clothes you select or rummage”

Karen Tranberg Hansen in her book “Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing in Zambia” notes that the Zambians call them salaula, meaning ‘things you select by rummaging’ while the Malawians call them kaunjika, which in Nyanja means ‘to pick’.

Benhilda Mlambo Masarira, in a tweet, noted that in Zimbabwe, they are called khothama among the Ndebele meaning to bend down, and mupedza nhamo in Shona, meaning to relieve poverty or to eradicate poverty.

To Angelique Gatsinzi, in Rwanda, second-hand clothes are caguwa or chaguwa, a name derived from the Swahili chagua meaning to select. In Uganda, it is mivumba — to bend down and select. Among the Burundians, vuyula, according to Steve Ndikumwenayo, also means rummaging.

Mtumba clothes or second hand clothes. Wikimedia Commons/Nasirumbi/Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A similar meaning is adopted by Zimbabweans living in South Africa. They call the place where such clothes are sold, dunusa, meaning bend-over, while some places are called ematshoko meaning the place of rummaging.

Carl Terver, an editor, informed me that informed me that in Nigeria, it is “Okirika” — a name second-hand clothes borrowed from the place where they were first introduced and sold.

Second-hand clothes as “castoffs”

Richard Ali, the Managing Editor of Jalada Africa — an organisation at the forefront of a renewed push for writing and translations in African languages — added that among the Hausa, second-hand clothes are kayan gonjo. Gonjo means castoffs. 

In Togo, they are called abloni or sogava meaning ‘bring your money’ or ‘pay whatever you have’, owing to the belief that castoffs are comparatively cheap.

The critically acclaimed and celebrated writer Hawa Jande Golakai enriched our conversation, adding that in Liberia, they are called dogafleh meaning old clothes, the kind you find at the bend down boutique.

Among the Luo in Kenya, second-hand clothes are called omboto, meaning flea, a name depicts such items as having fleas. To buy omboto was associated with poverty.

These names impart local meaning on second-hand clothes imports. They carry the source reference, which is the West: Europe and America. They carry the reason why they are no longer used in their countries of origin: their owners died, they are castoffs, they are of no use in the country of origin or are humanitarian aid. Other references capture the market situation: how they are packaged or how they are sold, in terms of shaking, sorting, selecting, bending.

Second-hand clothes carry both the individual and collective identity of their origin, that is, the fashion, style, and aesthetics. As discarded and unwanted items, second-hand clothes mediate notions of dignity and well-being. As imported commodities, second-hand clothes reference the nature of trade relations between Africa and the West, and how such relations influence local production. They are characteristic of the hegemonic domination of local markets by western commodities, a pertinent concern in the face of the United States onslaught on East Africa’s attempt to ban importation of second-hand clothes in order boost domestic textile manufacturing industry.

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