Monday, November 16, 2009

Alumni Report: T-Shirts in Kenya

Katie Darlington (IPE '09) is in Kenya, volunteering with an NGO, the Indeginous Fisher Peoples Network. You can read about her experience on her blog at

I thought IPE students would be interested in this recent post:

Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy

The other day on my way to work, my matatu passed a man wearing a Boulder, Colorado sweatshirt. I chuckled to myself at the reminder of my home state and wondered if the wearer had any idea where Boulder Colorado is. I suspected he didn’t get this on his most recent ski vacation with the fam. It got me thinking about the book Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy that you can hardly make it out of the IPE department at UPS without reading. The book tracks the politics and economics of the lifespan of your average cotton t-shirt. Most of the book speaks of the ridiculous legislation that governs cotton production, t-shirt manufacture, and textile importing in the US. The most interesting part, though, is what happens to your t-shirt after you are done using it. Most of us would assume that after we drop off our black trash bag of unwanted and outdated fashion at the local Good Will, our old t-shirt travels no farther than the vacation it may take with its budget conscious new owner. Wrong. Second-hand stores only sell a fraction of the cast-offs they get dumped at their back door. The ones you actually seeing hanging on the racks are the cream of the crop. Where do the rest go?

Africa! The next time you see footage of the “poor starving child” from some ambiguous African country wearing a shirt with your university’s logo, consider for a moment that it probably wasn’t donated by some do-gooder, but rather purchased at the local market. Here in Kenya, the trade in clothing is dominated heavily by second-hand wear (consequently, many Kenyans tend to sport a slightly 80s-fabulous look). Seeing bales upon bales of used clothing arriving to the market everyday is slightly shocking. How could we rich people discard so many perfectly good items? However, it is also encouraging to see that someone (actually, millions of someones) is making use of our fickle and materialistic shopping habits. Despite the overdose of shoulder pads, synthetic fibers, and screen prints from that 10K you ran in 1998, there are a fair amount of decently new items to be found. The trick is finding them.

This weekend, I thought I’d try my hand at the Kenyan version of a trip to the mall. I realized the last time I bought jeans was nearly two years ago, and they’re starting to wear through. I also was thinking of picking up some professional business wear for when I get back to the states and have to apply/interview for real jobs. Why not get it done at a fraction of the price? So optimistically I set out for Kibuye, Kisumu’s largest open-air market that comes to life on Sundays. As soon as I stepped foot into the chaos, I suddenly remembered that I hate shopping. A Saturday mall crowd is nothing in comparison to the hustle-bustle of this place. And sifting through the bargain racks at Macys is comes nowhere close to navigating stall after stall of reject clothing. At least I didn’t have to worry about the gross humming of florescent lights!

I challenge any one of you thrift store junkies to try your luck at an outdoor African market. This is no Value Village (although, on my most recent trip to the market, I did spot a pair of jeans with a Value Village tag still attached). First, you must bear the beating equatorial sun as you stroll down dirt paths, avoiding piles of smoldering garbage as you go. Shopping around doesn’t work so well since the slightest glint of interest indicates to the Kenyan salesman that you will make a purchase with them. Don’t get distracted. There are endless alleys of people trying to sell you their wares. “I’m selling spoons!” one cries. “Mzungu! Come, come,” another yells as he ushers you towards his stand of plastic wash bins. Don’t get trapped by the roaming hawker offering brightly colored flashlights, key chains, and nail clippers. You might want to pause at the man with the flip-flops made from recycled rubber tyres, but don’t stop for too long, or you’ll never make it out.

Finally, you’ve located the perfect stall of used clothing. Most specialize in something—jeans, blouses, jackets, bags. Now you can take the easy way out and pick your way through the pre-sorted clothes that have already been put on hangers and hung all over the makeshift stalls. These are the nicer items and the price is elevated to correspond (the equivalent of the most expensive outfit placed on the mannequin in the window). Or, you can be brave and opt for the bottomless piles of tops, skirts, pants, underwear, socks, and bras. This is the African bargain bin, and while most of it is there for a reason, there are rumors of hidden gems. Even when you’ve found something you like, good luck knowing it fits. Dressing rooms don’t exist. If and when you’ve finally made your selection, you still have a few minutes of haggling over the price (what probably amounts to 50 cents, but you’ve forgotten this in the intensity of the fight for a “fair” price) before you can leave victoriously.

This time, I did not come out victoriously. My search for cheap, yet stylish, newish jeans was foiled within the first few minutes. The thought of trying on a blazer and long sleeved shirt in 90 degree weather was too much to even consider. But once I gave up on my pursuit to actually buy something, I did enjoy browsing the folds of brightly colored traditional fabrics and wandering through the maze of vegetable vendors.

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