Clothes line


Year: 2004

Author: Michael Durham

Type: Guardian newspaper article.

Availability: free online (link), & copied below.

Full reference: Durham, M. (2002) Clothes line. The Guardian 25 February

Page reference: Durham, M. (2011) Clothes line. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/clothesline.shtml <insert date here>)


From a recycling bank in Ashby-de-la-Zouch to a small Zambian village hut, Michael Durham follows the journey of a £50 blouse donated to charity.

It is a hot, brain-stiflingly humid afternoon in the remote Zambian city of Chipata. In a nameless alley on the outskirts of a large open-air market, an extraordinary scrum is going on at my feet. Around 40 women are stooping over a pile of old clothes, pulling out shirts and tops and tossing them this way and that with appreciative squeals. Mary, the stallholder, has just slit open a fresh bale of garments all the way from England.

I, meanwhile, am looking for a blouse, a cheerful, summery thing, covered in swirls of red, yellow, green and blue: just the thing for a warm African twilight. A blouse that, until two months ago, was hanging in the back of a wardrobe in Leicester.

Since then, I have pursued it by bus, taxi, lorry and all-terrain vehicle. As my journey reaches Africa, I see thousands of market stalls overflowing with secondhand western clothing, Gap T-shirts, Levi jeans, Nike trainers, Marks & Spencer cargo pants - and blouses. At times the whole of Africa seems to be an immense open-air bazaar of western hand-me-downs.

This 10,000-mile journey starts on an October day in a Tesco car park in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire. Dana Simons, a professional fundraiser at the Rainbow Children's Hospice in Leicester, has been clearing out her wardrobe. The blouse was at the back. "I remember buying it a few years ago for £40 or £50," she says. "I'm not sure I ever actually wore it. It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Now it's just taking up space. So the blouse is about to join an astonishing mountain of unwanted garments. Britons throw about 1m tons of old clothes straight into the dustbin every year; in addition, an estimated 200,000 tonnes are recycled to be worn again or used in industry. Once, our blouse might have gone to a jumble sale, but today Simons does the modern thing and takes it to a recycling bank outside a supermarket.

By dropping the blouse into the charity bank, Simons ensures that a small part of its value will benefit Scope, the organisation for people with cerebral palsy. Scope has about 900 clothes banks nationally, most of which it owns, but 140 of the banks are owned by somebody else licensed to use the Scope name. One such is this textile bank in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, which belongs to a rag trader in Leicester.

His company, Ragtex UK, collects about 95 tons of old clothes a week from about 200 recycling banks in the Leicester area. Some are purely commercial banks, while some carry a charity name. For each bank carrying the Scope logo, the company makes a donation of £100 a year to the charity.

It is a convenient arrangement used by many charities. "The company collects the clothes and looks after the banks, and pays us to use our name and branding," a Scope spokeswoman explains.

The following day, the blouse is picked up by a van that clears the donation banks, and delivered to Ragtex's impressive textile recycling plant about 18 miles away in Parker Drive, Leicester.

Ragtex is a family business: the managing director Gerald Cemmell comes from a long line of respectable clothes merchants. His grandfather, Jackson, bought up old shirts from across the Midlands to be turned into cleaning rags and old jumpers to be unpicked for re-spinning. "There's always been recycling in this business," Cemmell says. But today there is an international dimension to the rag trade. My blouse and I will be going abroad.

Many more clothes are donated than charity shops can handle. "Charities have a real problem knowing what to do with surplus clothes," Cemmell says. "Only about 10-20% of the clothes collected in charity shops are sold in Britain to be worn again. That's where we come in. We sort and grade the clothes, package them up and sell them abroad in countries where they are really needed, like Pakistan and southern Africa. The charities get something out of it and so do people in poor countries. So everybody's happy."

The plant is a vast hubbub of activity as tonnes of discarded clothes, shoes, toys, and fabrics are marshalled into some sort of order. My blouse emerges from the van in a black plastic bin liner. Cemmell weighs the blouse in practised fingers. "It's a perfect blouse for Africa. Light, summery, just right for a hot country. It's no use sending winter overcoats to Zambia."

The coloured blouse joins thousands of other cast-offs crawling up a conveyor belt, where it is picked out by a female grader and tossed into a wire cage. There are more than 60 grades, and this item is top-quality export material. I take a good look at it: it could be some time before I see it again.

In the space of two days, my featherweight scrap of US rayon has been shrink-wrapped into a 45-kilo bale containing hundreds of similar garments, and loaded on to the Maersk shipping line in a white container numbered MSKU 8077236, ready for the long trip south. For the next seven weeks, container MSKU 8077236 is tossed at sea across the Bay of Biscay, through the Mediterranean Sea, down the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, aboard the good ship SL Michigan.

In the east African port city of Beira, in Mozambique, Sunday November 23 dawns hot and bright. The Michigan has arrived. "There's a lot of excitement when a shipload of old clothes from the UK arrives in Beira," an African clothes trader says. "People queue up overnight to meet it - they sleep on the pavement in the docks. It's like the start of a Harrods sale."

He tells me this over a crackly telephone line because as the ship docks, I am still 600 miles away in Malawi, crouched in a stifling minibus trying to get from Lilongwe to Chimoio. Things have gone badly wrong logistically: Beira, once a gateway for the trade in copper, gold, slaves and ivory, is now a hub in the old-clothes commodity trade, but it still seems as hard to reach as in David Livingstone's day.

I begin to catch up as MSKU 8077236 spends a week in customs. Then, almost two months since that day in Ashby-de-la-Zouche car park, the container emerges on a Friday morning, ready to travel inland.

Loaded on to a juggernaut of the Mozambican company J&J Transport, it heads through a landscape dotted with dirt-poor villages, mud huts, barefoot children and ox carts in parched, brown fields. By Saturday it is in Tete, capital of Mozambique's western province, and so am I - aiming to intercept it on its way north. The rains have not yet come and the temperature is 44C. Overnight, the mosquitoes are biting and power cuts have shut down the primitive air conditioning at the Paradise Motel. But in the morning, there is no sign of the juggernaut in the lorry park beside the Zambezi.

With its massive steel bridge across the Zambezi, Tete is bang in the middle of what used to be known during the Mozambique civil war as the Gun Run. The war ended eight years ago, but the potholed highway north into Zambia is still regarded as a risky undertaking. MSKU 8077236, now worth about $55,000, must already be on the road, probably with an armed police guard to deter looters.

By the time the container lorry crosses the Zambian border and finally rolls under the "Welcome to Chipata" arch at the entrance to the town, I am 30 miles away in a car with a broken windscreen on the Malawi border arguing with moneychangers. When I finally drive into Chipata in an old taxi the container has been unloaded. The bale that should contain my blouse is sitting on a dirty warehouse floor. It is now the property of a clothes trader named Khalid.

Khalid, 44, is an ethnic Indian, one of a handful of prosperous old-clothes traders in Chipata, Zambia's fourth-biggest city. He looks thoughtful, brooding and careworn. A Muslim, he wears traditional white robes and prayer hat and sports a magnificent beard. His family is one of 100 in Chipata that all come from one small part of the Indian state of Gujarat, and who now mostly live in comfortable dwellings on the same hillside quarter.

At this point a slight veil is thrown over the old-clothes business. Khalid politely declines to have his picture taken. Moreover, to protect his business, we have been asked not to use his full name by Gerald Cemmell back at Ragtex in Leicester. Khalid buys 20 container loads of clothing from Leicestershire a year and sells the bales off to small traders who travel up to 100 miles out of the African bush to collect them. English clothes, he says, are the best. "American clothes are usually worn out. The clothes I get from Gerald are very, very good quality," he says.

Zambians call the old clothes business "salaula" - a Bemba word signifying "to rummage in a pile". And that is what millions of Zambians do daily, to keep looking spruce. With earnings of a dollar or two a day, most Zambians cannot afford new clothes and would otherwise dress in rags. In her book Salaula: the World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, academic Karen Tranberg Hansen of Northwestern University in Illinois, points out that Zambians have always taken pride in their appearance and argues that wearing affordable clothes, even old ones, is an important part of their self-esteem.

Development workers concur, adding that it is better to sell the clothes than to give them away. "Constant handouts eventually demean the individual," one expert says. Many Zambians, however, believe salaula is western relief aid that has somehow been hijacked and sold for a profit, on the basis of the British and American charity price tags that are still attached to the clothes, some of which have been cleared off charity shop shelves because they haven't sold.

There are other grumbles. The flood of imported clothes has been blamed for the collapse of the Zambian textile industry: in the seven years before 1993, no fewer than 51 out of 72 Zambian clothing firms closed down. Hansen, however, argues in her book that poor economic management and high inflation were the real culprits; moreover, she says, that while the wearing of ragged clothing is "a metaphor for lack of access, salaula stands for opportunity, choice and new chances".

Khalid has been importing salaula for nine years. His shop near Chipata's impressive mosque and the venerable Anglican church is a bare, whitewashed unit with bales stacked against the back wall and a wooden counter to the side where he sits, his knees drawn up, overseeing affairs. His business undoubtedly benefits many Africans. He employs three African staff and half a dozen young men are always sitting outside in the porch, waiting for errands to run. Hundreds of small traders depend on him. Is it a good business? "Yes and no. There is so much money involved. I often get sleepless nights when there is a bill to pay," Khalid says.

But today there is hardly a customer in sight. The rains have come, so it's a slow time of year, Khalid sighs. "Everybody has gone to work on the farms. But later, in February or March, people will be queuing out of the door and across the road."

High up on the wall is a blackboard showing today's prices - 45 different grades ranging from girls' cotton dresses to old toys. My bale of mainly polyester blouses is one of the most expensive at 950,000 kwachas (about £150). Few small market traders can afford such a sum. Two women come in and sit chatting for an hour. Frieda Tembo, a thin-faced woman in black, says she relies on selling salaula. She lives in a rented house with a family of seven, with electricity, water, a TV and a two-plate cooker, and needs 30,000 kwacha (£4.50) a day to keep going.

"Salaula is a good family business. Clothes from the UK are good. Trousers from Canada are too big round the waist, but UK trousers are just right. The best clothes are men's suits, T-shirts, and children's clothes. People like shirts with writing on them - it doesn't matter what it says.

"Nobody can afford new clothes, even Zambian ones, and anyway, what's the point in buying something that looks like a uniform? With salaula everything is different, no two items are the same. People know they are secondhand, but when you put the clothes on your own bodies you don't think about it. If you did, you would only suffer."

But Frieda has only enough money for a bale of curtains. Her friend, Rhoda Banda, is also too poor. Eventually a third woman, Mary, buys my bale. Mary is a woman of few words. The moment the deal is concluded a sprightly porter hoists the 45-kilo package on to his head and sets off down the high street. He fords a fast-flowing stream, negotiates a small hill, and dumps the bale at Mary's stall on the margins of Kapata open-air market. "I start my prices at 10,000 kwachas (£1.50) for the best items, then drop them by 2,000 a week," Mary says. She slits the bale.

Hundreds of bits of clothing tumble out. I hold my breath. And suddenly, triumphantly, there it is, a scrap of red, yellow, green and blue that is being held up by a young woman. She strokes the material - light as gossamer - examines the stitching. She digs out her purse, which is in her handbag next to her mobile phone, and hands over two tattered blue 5,000-kwacha banknotes.

I walk over and introduce myself, and explain as best I can that this is the blouse I've been looking for, all the way to this African township. She is Priscilla Msimuko, 27, and with the blouse from Ashby-de-la-Zouche now in her shopping bag, she agrees to take me to her home in Chipata's Morth residential district to meet her family. Priscilla lives in what was once the detached quarters for servants behind 74 Nyakutwa Road with a brother Blessed, a sister Esther, her aunt Gladys Banda and Gladys's baby daughter Thokozile. The five live in three rooms.

Gladys, who is in her mid-30s and nursing the baby, springs up and gives me a warm Zambian handshake, a subtle ritual of squeezing palms. "Are you a missionary?" she asks. The first thing you notice is that there is no stove and no fridge - indeed, no kitchen. Meals are cooked on a charcoal brazier in the porch. In the cramped sitting room is a small TV with a doily on it and a CD player. The women share a bedroom with put-you-up beds, and Blessed sleeps in an old storeroom. There's an outside tap, shower and latrine. This is no mud hut, but it's hardly luxury.

Priscilla, 27, puts on the blouse and flounces around. She is a high school teacher at the Anoya Zulu boys' secondary school in Chipata, where - like Dana, the blouse's Leicester owner - she teaches home economics, food and nutrition. She has just spent more than a day's salary. "It's nice," she says, striking poses like a fashion model. "I'll wear it to parties. It's important to look good. I don't buy clothes very often, just once in a while, but after paying all the bills it's nice to have a bit of money left over for something smart."

Priscilla earns around £70 a month; after paying rent, electricity and water bills she has about £1 a day to live on. Even so, she can count herself among the middle class. Her mobile phone was a month's salary, but "you have to be able to communicate". She shakes her head in disbelief at what the blouse cost new. "Tell the lady that I am very pleased. I would like to meet her one day.

"I'm happy here. But we couldn't get by without salaula. Sometimes I sell a bit of salaula myself, and I take some on the bus to my mother to sell too. Although, actually, salaula is becoming quite expensive. How can you afford a million kwacha for a bale? I don't understand why, if people in England give it away for nothing, it has to cost so much here?" But Priscilla doesn't consider herself poor. "Here in Chipata everybody dresses in salaula, but in some places in Zambia, people don't have proper clothes - just rags. And look at the street kids. For those people, clothes from the west should be free."

Charity sources in Britain insist that giving the clothes away is unrealistic, because of the cost of sorting, packing, baling and loading them. "Selling them generates jobs, helps the micro and then the macro economy, and makes the best use of donated items. Charities have to operate efficiently, like businesses. It's not aid or trade - it's trade for aid," a senior executive in one charity explains.

Back behind his shop counter, Khalid puts it this way. "There are two things. There is charity, and there is business. I know that back in England there are many people who give to charity shops. But it is not aid. I actually pay for the clothes, it's trade and I have to sell them. They're of good quality, they help to support all kinds of people in this country, people are clothed, and it still works out cheaper than new clothes.

"Or you can look at it this way. If a person has too much food on his plate, he has a choice. He can throw it away and then other people starve, or he can save it and then it can be sold cheaply to someone else. That way nobody goes hungry."

Further reading

Mann, H-R. & McGoldrick, R. (2011) T-shirt travels. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/tshirttravels.shtml last accessed 28 July 2011)

Rivoli, P. (2005) The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy : An Economist Examines The Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Tranberg Hansen, K. (2000) Salaula: the world of secondhand clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Compiled by Ian Cook (last updated July 2011). Article reproduced without charge with permission from Guardian News and Media Limited (copyright 2004).