'The Secret Life of Your Clothes' was a recent BBC 2 documentary that explored the journey that our castoffs make to Ghana every week, all 1 million pounds worth. An estimate 30,000 tonnes of second hand clothing arrives in Accra, the capital of Ghana, every year. Our desire and obsession with fast fashion has produced a lucrative business for Ghanaian people, with money being made every single day. 'Obrani wawu' is the local term for these garments, meaning 'dead white mans clothing'.
|Image via here|
|Image via here|
|Kumasi Market. Image via here|
Kente cloth is traditionally worn on special occasions by The Royal Family and State Officials. It takes at least 1 year in training to learn how to make traditional Kente cloth, taking 4 months to weave just one piece. There is history in the clothes they wear. One man featured in the programme said that traditional clothing is becoming less popular, Ghanaians are 'dressing like westerners not africans'. 'They are taught to regard the western world as civilisation'. 'If we are not careful and respect our own things, our traditions will be lost, history will be lost'.
|An Example of Traditional Kente Cloth. Image via here|
There used to be over 250,000 people employed in textile and garment factories in Ghana, now there is only one factory left that produces textile cloth. Akosombo Textiles was producing nearly 2 million metres a month in 2009, but this has fallen by 75 per cent. Steve Dutton, the company manager, described their current situation as 'urgent'. "we feel like we’re on the brink of not being able to carry on". They not only face the challenge of competing with the used clothing industry but also from factories in the far east who are under-cutting them and producing fakes and copies of their designs. The factory is close to closing down. The Ghanaian textile industry is struggling.
The government in Ghana is making some small effort not to let Ghanaians forget their heritage. They persuade workers to wear traditional dress once per week on 'Thank Ghana it's Friday'. This is seen as a 'dress down' day, much like businesses and schools have here in the UK. When speaking to some workers par-taking in this weekly ritual, they were asked on their views of traditional versus 2nd hand clothing. Traditional dress is seen as a statement maker, worn if you want to impress. The younger generations are seeing the latest trends on 'MTV' and want to adopt these looks and see 2nd hand clothing as a way to achieve this. Many opt for mixing the two cultures, whatever looks 'cool'.
Whilst we cannot say for definite that this surge in our castoffs reaching Ghana has directly and solely decimated their textile industry, nor can we prove that it has directly impacted the decline in desire for traditional Ghanaian dress, it's clear to see that it has gone some way to damage it. Irreversibly? I don't know, I guess that's up to us to decide. Our donations go on a meandering journey, geographically and ethically, but both beginning and ending in some of the poorest countries in the world, Made by some of the poorest people in the world and ending up being worn by some of the poorest people in the world. I don't believe that the answer is to stop donating our unwanted stuff to charity but instead to perhaps take heed of this simple advice:
"Buy less, Choose well, Make it last"
- Vivienne Westwood