Monday, June 4, 2012

The Second Life of the American T-Shirt

When I packed to come to Africa, I squeezed exactly 80 pounds of material into two extra-large suitcases.  Eighty pounds was the weight limit, and I was terrified that I would forget something.  I loaded my suitcase in a nervous frenzy.  For hours, I packed and unpacked my belongings, weighing my suitcase every fifteen or twenty minutes.  I was on the verge of tears.

"Everything I need for the next two years," I thought to myself,  "has to be in these suitcases.  I have to pack everything..."

Looking back on this, just eight months later, I can see that my packing list was a little ridiculous.  Among my effects could be found:  twenty T-shirts, four pairs of denim jeans, ten sweaters, fifteen pairs of socks, and nearly 25 pairs of underwear.  I was prepared to never shop again.


It turns out that Mozambicans like shopping just as much as I do.  I would have no problem finding anything in my adopted country.  From market stalls to shopping malls, I have found a wide array of things that I never expected to find in Africa:  non-stick pans, margarine, sprinkles, ankle socks, strollers, stuffed animals, throw pillows, basketballs, can-openers, Teletubbies paraphernalia, playing cards, etc.  Some of these items are few and far between (or show up in unexpected places), but they exist.

Consumerism, I have discovered, is not an American concept.  It is not a "western" concept or even a "first-world" concept.  It is a human concept, and we all seem driven to buy as much as we can, as often as we can.

 The issue of clothing in Africa, though, is an interesting one.

I was still in training when I first discovered clothing in Mozambique.  Market day came to Namaacha twice a week, and I never missed a chance to go.  At 6AM every Wednesday and Saturday, the marketplace would swell to maximum capacity.  Vendors under wooden awnings hawked fruits, vegetables, basketry items, cheap plastic junk, and clothes.  I loved it, all of it.  Everywhere you looked, you would find mountains of old, dusty clothes, from socks to jeans to dresses to shirts.  The clothes smelled like the Salvation Army.  T-shirts and skirts were sweaty and thick-smelling, reeking of skin cells and dust and human oil.

I was in heaven.  

As a child, I wore a mixture of new clothes, hand-me-down clothes, and jumpers that my mother made.  I was not terribly scrupulous, and I remain that way, still.  After college, living as a newlywed in my old college town and spending my own salary for the first time in my life, I discovered the joy of second-hand shopping.  I delighted in selling my old clothes and then using that money to buy somebody else's used clothes.  I satisfied my need for change without actually creating waste.

Upon arriving here, I discovered (to my endless delight) that the African market is the mother of all thrift stores.  This is the end of the line for donated clothing.  This is where your college T-shirt, your stretch pants, your baby bib, and your too-tight dancing shirt go to die.  And it's not as depressing as you might think.

Clothing in Mozambique comes from a variety of places.  Some (cheap) clothing is made in China and India with intent to sell at low-range markets in developing nations.  This clothing arrives brand new and, while not always of premium quality, is always bright and flashy.  My students love this stuff, and they wear it all the time.  Some clothing is made by tailors in the village marketplace, out of long strips of colorful cloth called "capulanas."  Usually, capulana clothing is worn as a covering, wrap, or shawl.  Finally, clothing comes from first-world nations, where it has been donated, sorted, bundled, and sold.  That is the good stuff.

Before I start, I want to admit that there has been some debate over "donated" clothes in Africa.

"It ruins local business!"  Some people insist.  "It edges native competitors out of the market and creates a dearth of employment in the textile and tailoring industries."

Some people protest even further.  "It is positively evil," they say.  "Sending used clothing to Africa sends the message that people in the developing world are only deserving of our discarded waste."

But I am not an economist or a social scientist.  I am only an English teacher, living and working in Mozambique.  Like my counterparts and neighbors, I earn about $200 a month.  And like my counterparts and neighbors, I am not interested in paying $20 for a T-shirt or $40 for a pair of jeans.  I want to dress nicely and I want dignity and choice.  In Africa, the second-hand market gives me that freedom.

This is the story of the used clothing, from the perspective of Africa.

A shirt that is donated in America goes to one of three places.  First, if it is of high quality, it goes straight to the shelves of a thrift store, where it awaits purchase by an American buyer.  About 15 to 20% of donated clothes are actually sold in domestic thrift stores.  If it is terribly ripped, stained, moldy, or unhygenic, it is thrown in the trash.  That is why the dumpsters behind thrift stores are always overflowing with discarded donations.  Finally, if it is of "intermediate" quality or if it fails to sell in-store, it is bundled and sold in-bulk to a trading company.  That is where the African adventure begins.  This is the second life of the American T-shirt.

Low-quality used clothes, or nice quality used clothes that fail to sell, are wrapped up and sold in bulk to distributors like the Trans-Americas Trading Company.  There, the clothes are unloaded and sent down massive conveyor belts where they are sorted into four principal groups:  Premium, Africa A, Africa B, and Wiper Rag.  Premium clothes constitute approximately 3-4% of the total volume of  sifted clothes.  Clothes in the premium category include brand name clothes, barely used clothes, and clothes with the tags still attached.  These are sold in bulk to buyers within the US or to countries in Asia or Latin America.  Clothing labeled "Africa A," will be sent to wealthier African nations, like Kenya.  Clothing labeled "Africa B" (small rips or stains) is sent to areas in greater economic distress, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Once sorted, the clothes are crushed together and vacuum sealed into 100-pound bundles.  Wrinkled, smashed, and unwashed, they are ready for transport.  The bundles, dense and airtight, are stacked and loaded into trucks, which are then loaded onto cargo ships headed overseas.  Once the clothing arrives in the port city, it is then sold to individual distributors in major cities.  In turn, these individual distributors will sell bundles to small-town vendors, who often buy just one or two at a time.

In Mozambique, used clothing is referred to as "Calamidades"  (Portuguese:  calamities).  Whether this name should be considered rather tongue-in-cheek or whether Mozambican vendors truly believe that the original owners died in awful, violent ways, I have no idea.  But calamidades are hugely popular across the entire country, and a new bundle of clothes always creates a big stir in the marketplace.

Walking across Tete City one day last week, I came across a sign above a small, nondescript storefront.  The sign read:  "Calamidades!  Best, strongest calamidades clothes!"  Excited, I asked Dan to wait for me while I went inside.

The inside of the store was darkened somewhat by the towers of bundles leaning against the windows.  The smell was overwhelming and unmistakable.  Everything-- the air, the bundles, the owner-- smelled like skin cells and oil.  The Salvation Army.

I squeezed through the narrow rows between stacks, marveling at the sheer number of bundles.  A woman was perched nearly eight feet off the ground, counting inventory from the top of one of the higher stacks.  I read the labels on a few of the bundles:  "Household Small," "Women's Shirts, Large," and "Socks."

"Excuse me," I said to the owner.  "Do you mind if I take a picture in here?"

The owner, a white man with a grizzled beard and nice, striped, button-down T-shirt, looked at me suspiciously.

"Take a picture," he said, finally.  "That's fine."  He watched me while I did it, though, standing with his arms crossed at the front of the store.

"How much does one of these bundles cost?"  I asked, firing three photos in rapid succession and then tucking my camera out of sight.

"Depends," said the owner.  "On what you're buying."

"Well," I said.  "This one, for instance."  I gestured at the bundle that was closest to me.  Women's Shirts, Large.

"This one is 5500," he said.  "Meticais."  200 dollars.  

200 dollars for 100 pounds of clothes.  One dollar for half a pound of clothing.

I thanked the store owner and headed back into the street.  A young man followed me out, carrying a 100-pound bundle on his head.  I stepped out of the way and the man continued past me, towards the marketplace and out of sight.

Small-time vendors, I learned, will further sort the clothing into their own categories.  Clothing in some piles fetches just one or two Meticais (3 - 6 cents).  Other items are worth up to 150 Meticais (6 dollars) each.  From the rummage heap, each article of clothing is carefully selected, bartered for, and brought home.  Shirts are washed, pants are ironed, and ripped seams are mended.  In Africa, an old T-shirt gets a new life.  What seemed faded in America now seems shiny and loved.  Pinned to the clothesline and blowing in the wind, the recently-purchased dress, skirt, or pair of jeans takes on a new life.  For the American T-shirt, it is a second chance at love.

The following pictures depict two categories of clothes found in Mozambique.  The first category is "US rummage."  These clothes followed a path like the one described above.  Arriving from Canada, the United States, Germany, Turkey, Canada, or Japan, these clothes were discarded by their original owner and eventually found their way to Africa.  The second category can just be considered "Other."  Ranging from funny misprints to wildly inappropriate button-downs, the photos in this category helps paint a picture of "fashion" in Mozambique.  In most parts of Africa, the saying seems to be, "If you've got it, wear it."  And, bless them, do they ever wear it in style.

Calamidades.  Purchased from rummage in Mozambique, from left to right:  Flowered sweater,
 silver tunic, purple T-shirt, spaghetti-strap sundress, and pink baby-doll top.
Calamidades:  Bundles in Tete City
Calamidades:  Mom, your shoes!
Calamidades on a student:  Smith-Means Family Reunion 1991
Calamidades:  Titanic, 1997
Calamidades: Embroidered button-up top for those cold African mornings

In addition to a wide variety of fashions (some good and some questionable), you come across some very strange typos, misprints, and patterns while shopping in Mozambique.  Below are a few of my favorites:

My!  Heroes have always been Cowboys
The World Famous SuperBeaglf:  RNOOPK
A Calamidades Rare Gem:  I am a Wonder Zap

Next, we have some "Obama Bling," which is absurdly popular in Mozambique.

Dan displays his new basketball shirt
Holographic Obama Belt

And, finally, the least appropriate shirt I have ever, ever seen.  This shirt cost me two dollars, and it was a wonderful purchase.  At first, it appears to be a nice, normal, collared shirt.  

What could go wrong?

And there you have it.  Clothing enters Mozambique through a variety of channels (and some are mysterious, indeed), but it always finds its way to the right person.  And it never fails to bring a smile.  


  1. Hysterically well written post! And you did save the best demo for last - definitely a party shirt for PC get-togethers!

  2. Hello Lisa!
    I am researching some health structures designed by the Portuguese for colonial Mozambique; two of them are located at Zóbuè: the hospital and the trypanosomiasis medical station. I already found both at google earth. Unfortunately, I have not been so lucky in finding images. Do you have any recent pictures of those facilities you might be willing to share?
    Thank for your cooperation and keep on with your work!
    Best regards,

  3. It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir.

  4. I was thinking about writing a blog on this topic, which is how I found your blog - google search on calamidades and second hand clothing. You've got it pretty well covered! Have bought some nice clothes at FAINA in Nampula over the years, though I don't live there any more. One of my favorite shirts was worn by a male friend of ours - "World's Greatest Aunt." Maybe I'll write about it anyway. . . Thanks for the great photos and details of Mozambican life. You've hit it exactly right!

  5. I think calamidades comes from the "departemento de gestao de calamidades" which was the disaster management department. It always is more fun to call the clothes "calamities" though. And you are right, the random silliness intermingled with the rare great find are wonderfully entertaining.

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