St. Mary's School by the ... Uganda?

Pius Mukiibi is wearing a "St Mary's School by the Riverwalk" San Antonio T-Shirt. You may think there is nothing very surprising in that.

But 14-year-old Pius is not from San Antonio. Indeed, he is not even American, and has no idea where San Antonio is. Pius is from the East African country of Uganda and lives in a suburb of its capital city, Kampala, just a few hundred meters away from Lake Victoria.

So, why is Pius wearing this T-shirt?


Most Ugandans wear imported secondhand clothes, as do many people in poor Third World countries. Used shirts, blouses, trousers, caps, and other clothing reach Uganda in huge bales from First-World countries. The used clothes often start out in the U.S. Charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army sell the very best of the donated clothes they receive in their own shops - but only a small fraction of the clothes donated to these charities stay in the country. So what happens to them? The charities sell them by weight to wholesale merchants.

The charities charge the wholesalers what the market will bear. Typically, this is between 5 and 7 cents per pound. The price will tend towards the lower end of the range during seasons that generate winter cast-off clothes, as cold-weather clothes have a more limited market than summer clothing. However, the emergence of the former Eastern-block communist countries as importers of American secondhand clothes has altered this equation somewhat.


The U.S.'s secondhand clothes wholesalers are described by Dr Pietra Rivoli in her classic book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy as the "U.S. textile recycling industry." It "consists of thousands of small family businesses, many now in their third or fourth generation of family ownership." Typically, these businesses have 30 to 50 employees. Every year some of these firms go bankrupt, but are replaced by new entrants in what is an extremely competitive market. Rivoli describes it as a "fluid network of start-ups and failures."


The poorest quality clothes are cut up into rags or are shredded as fiber, but the saleable clothes are graded by the wholesalers' employees and such grading is a huge skill in itself. For example, Japan has a huge demand for all things American and is the largest importer by value of American secondhand clothes, so a Mickey Mouse T-shirt can end up in Tokyo. But Japan almost exclusivly imports high-quality, high-value clothes, so in volume terms the Japanese share of the market is small.

Other good-grade clothes find their way into vintage shops in the U.S., Europe, or Latin America, and this is where the grading rises from skill to an art form. For example, a poor condition "Doors" or "Rolling Stones" tour T-shirt from the 1970s can, if spotted by a grader-sorter, have huge value in speciality markets. But in Africa, it would have very little value - most Africans, understandably, would associate "doors" with opening and closing rather than music.


The lesser-grade secondhand clothing merchandise, much of which is faded or stained, is labeled Africa A and Africa B. As Rivoli points out in her book, used clothing is Uganda's sixth-largest U.S. import. For other countries, the rank is even higher. Thus for Tanzania it is the largest, and for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is the fourth-largest import.


Once in Africa, the bales of clothes find their way along a chain of wholesalers until they end up with small retailers in thousands of trading centers dotted around Uganda and other African countries.

Such secondhand clothes are known locally as mivumba. Pius bought his St. Mary's School T-shirt for 3,000 Ugandan Shillings (approximately U.S. $ 1.40) in Luzira market, close to his home.

For Ugandans, this secondhand clothes market results in many interesting situations in different areas of life. For example, in sports, as they stand at the start line on a typically rutted grass track, what is a Ugandan runner likely to be wearing? A hodgepodge of gear. The vest may be Adidas, the shorts Nike, the socks Brooks, and the spiked shoes Asics. But every item will have one thing in common - it will have had a previous First-World owner who no longer wanted it and discarded it for something new.


Is there not something a little unsettling about the First World's cast-offs being worn by the poor in the Third World? But, on the other hand, in these environmentally conscious times, this flow of secondhand clothes can be viewed as an important form of recycling.

Every now and again there are calls in the Ugandan media for banning imports of secondhand clothes. Such a ban, it is claimed, would promote the development of homegrown textile industries and enhance economic growth. But this would not have the support of most Ugandans - for as Brian, my 14-year-old neighbor, confirms, many Ugandans prefer the cheapness and variety of styles and fashion provided by imported secondhand clothes.


Pius is in the fifth year of elementary school and his favorite subject is science. He is much older than his San Antonio counterpart, as many parents have trouble paying school fees, so a child may move in and out of school. Attendance at some primary schools is free (under the Government's Universal Primary Education scheme), but most elementary schools (and all the better ones) are private, while secondary education is entirely private.

Despite the challenges of his education, Pius is ambitious - he wants to be an aircraft pilot. He tries to dress as smartly as possible and while he knows little about its origins, he still wears his San Antonio T-shirt with pride.


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