For centuries the various tribes of Mali have weaved garments out of domestically-produced cotton.
Back in the day, the cotton was weaved into string which was in turn knitted into large streams of bogolan cloth – which was for the most part colored with mud for various geometric patterns of brown and black and white.
As Malian merchants got their hands on more varieties of dye from Ashanti and Ewe caravans, many weavers began to make brightly colorful, psychedelic-looking bogolan to be tailored into dresses, headwraps, pants and boubous.
Bogolan is still produced by hand, but its sales now go disproportionately to Western tourists. Now the bulk of Malian pagnes are made in mills run by CMDT or Comatex – the firms which are all but shepherding this country’s nascent industrialization. Though even large-scale manufactured Malian textiles carry a wonderfully bizarre spirit of their own; e.g. patterns of lamp shades, egg-beaters, and the life-cycle of schistosomiasis.
Older generations prefer to wear locally-made bogolan or pagnes;
long-robed boubous for men,
...flowing dresses with matching head-wraps for women.
Younger folks might have one pair of formal attire for going to mosque, weddings, baptisms and the bank – but they opt to wear Western-style jeans and t-shirts on an everyday basis. Part of it is practicality – it is pretty hard to bend over and hoe a plot of land in a full-length boubou; the absurd driving factor, however, is cost.
One would think that in this country where most rural farmers grow cotton to at least some degree, where textile manufacturing is one of the few industries, it would be economical for Malians to wear Malian-produced clothing. Cotton and textiles are among the few things that this country can produce, but it is significantly cheaper for people to buy shirts, pants, underwear and dresses from America. To be more precise, it is cheaper for Malians to buy clothing made from cotton that they have grown, exported to China where it is processed and sewn into a finished product, sold for consumption in America, and then exported back to the people who grew the original raw materials in Mali.
Year after year when charitable organizations and churches collect used clothing from humanitarian-minded liberals who want to cloth the naked, it sounds perfectly good-natured to send to the ever-needy masses on the African continent. Some of the clothing eventually winds up in refugee camps or orphanages like the donors might have intended, but the great bulk of it is donated to local entrepreneurs who make a killing selling these goods on the open market. Since these merchants paid nothing or some negligible amount for all of these free, second-hand clothes, they can sell them to Malians for any price greater than zero and make 100 percent profits. Only after these clothes have gone through a number of middlemen do they have to resell them at some sort of equilibrium price.
Most of the American clothes which get donated to charity are those things which people have outgrown, ugly birthday presents from that great-aunt with no taste, and of course all of those promotional t-shirts given away for marketing and fundraising purposes that no one in America would ever be caught wearing in public. Before major league sporting championships merchandisers churn out a supply of t-shirts for both teams – the t-shirts for the teams which actually win sell like hotcakes in the States, the shirts for the losers get dumped in Africa. Here in Mali, I inhabit a parallel universe where the Arizona Cardinals won Super Bowl XLIII and the Detroit Tigers were champions in the 2006 World Series.
Your average Malian consumer thinks only the world of these American clothing imports, though they don’t really understand how they made their way from point A to point B. It is unthinkable that some living person would own some perfectly good items of clothing with no stains or tears and still not want to wear it. And so the Bambara expression for these clothes literally means “dead Tubab”; in Togo, it is pretty much the same – “dead Yovo”; in Ghana, the expression means “a white person has died”.
To a typical Malian man or woman, your hand-me-downs represent the latest in what is cool and hip. Most rural peasants wear their shirts until they degrade into a mass of rags and string which no longer covers the nipples. To have a fully intact shirt is a matter of pride. To have a shirt emblazoned with the visage of Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur or Barack Obama is to be the coolest guy for a dozen villages in any direction.
One of the most interesting aspects of “dead Tubab” clothing is that this is a very illiterate country and one in which next to one can read English, so people will be sporting shirts and they won’t have the slightest idea what they mean. A friend of mine in Sanadougou who is a 28-year-old guy sports a crisp white t-shirt with pink lettering that says I’m a Girl Scout Because It’s Fun! – I haven’t the heart to translate it for him. Other people in Sanadougou wear shirts which read Babycakes, I Had an Awesome Time at Jacob Greenblatt’s Bar Mitzvah! and I Love Hockey Moms! It is hard to keep myself from laughing at times.
It is really bizarre how many hockey-themed shirts make their way to this country where no one has ever seen ice that wasn’t made in a freezer for the purpose of cooling beverages. The Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks all have fans living in my dusty village of mud huts. I’ve tried making small talk out of this topic and failed miserably each time:
“So, Mario Lemieux led the Penguins with brilliant fakes and dekes which fooled the other teams’ defensemen! He was one of the greatest forwards in NHL history!”
“Y’know… Mario Lemieux! The hockey player on your shirt!”
Though the all-time greatest example of “dead Tubab” irony was this one time I saw a very conservative Tamashek man walking down the streets of Koutiala wearing a Rocky Horror Picture Show tee with the trademark blood-dripping lettering and “Science Fiction, Double Feature” lips. What this means is that either the elderly Muslim fellow did not quite understand the libertine values which his shirt represented, or he does – and the subversive clans of Mali’s northern frontier are quietly undergoing a revolutionary deconstruction of gender and sexuality…
Despite the fact that Malians are enjoying these cheap new duds, and Americans like myself often find great humor in their fashion selections, there is something sinister to this phenomenon. Every time I see one of my peanut-farming neighbors going out to the fields wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch golf shirt, I can’t help but think that he is wearing that shirt because some kid in America had his mom buy it for $50, for whatever reason that kid decided he didn’t like it anymore, and then he donated that $50 golf shirt to charity. The fact that I come from a society where we have enough spare cash to blow on designer clothes we don’t need and don’t even want makes me feel downright spoiled.
On a more substantive level, when charities dump these clothes on the Dakar or Abidjan clothing market, starting with a price of zero, after a few middlemen it gets sold by Malian street peddlers for practically nothing. It’s great for Malian consumers who need some cheap clothes, but it’s killing domestic textile producers who simply cannot compete with free goods. Charitable donations have eviscerated a number of African textile mills, and those like Comatex and CMDT which are still standing can only stay in business by gearing their products towards the wealthy elite and Western tourists beyond the price range of local consumers for everyday wear.
The people who bear the brunt of this downward pressure are the urban sweatshop workers and rural cotton farmers who make so little from their toils in the textile industry that they cannot afford to buy the bogolan and pagnes which they produce themselves. The only way that they can cloth themselves for everyday wear is to buy these “dead Tubab” clothes made from cotton which they picked, sold to Chinese mills where they were made into textiles and garments, sold to American consumers, and donated back to the people who planted and picked this cotton in the first place – via a half-dozen middlemen.
If there is anything that wealthy Americans want to do to cloth the poor and naked in Africa, the best thing they can do to stop sending Africans free clothes.
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