One morning I phoned my friend Thierry.
“Someone’s stolen my clothes.”
“I can lend you clothes,” he said. Thierry was resourceful and full of solutions to problems – he could get things and repair things, and looked after the centre’s building and maintenance.
“No but they’ve stolen my socks. Even Peter didn’t see anything.”
He started laughing.
“And my underpants.”
He laughed more.
“I had them drying on the clothesline last night.”
I didn’t see the funny side, but I really didn’t want to go commando to my workplace or even sockless; this was kigali 2008, not Miami Vice 1985.
“Wait I’ll come and pick you up. We can go to Kimironko.”
(This post is part of the blog series Letters from the Heart of Africa)
Kimironko is a huge covered market in Remera district in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. They sell everything there from newspaper-bead jewellery to vegetables, electrical appliances and green bananas to clothes.
Like many clothes markets in Africa from Abuja to Kamapala, it sells second-hand clothes imported from the west. Sometimes during my travels in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, I would see a big guy with broad shoulders and beefy biceps wearing an incongruous t shirt; something like, ‘Cincinnati Women’s Volleyball Club” (it may have not been exactly that but you get my drift).
It’s a controversial topic; many African countries claim that this multi-million pound industry where the west sends its old clothes to Africa, undermines local textile industries from cotton farmers to tailors. Some call the garments ‘white dead man’s clothes’.
“I’m not wearing second hand underwear,” I said to Thierry.
” I know, but why don’t we see if we can buy them back.”
“Buy them back? My own underpants?”
Some months earlier, he explained, someone had pulled off the wing mirror of his Mercedes and the following day he went to Kimironko and, lo and behold, he found it on a stall; conveniently, the seller had no idea where it came from. It still had his number plate etched on it.
“I think I’m okay with buying new socks and underpants,” I said.
Thierry picked me up and we spent the morning driving from clothes shop to clothes shop in centre-ville, the central business district of Kigali.
Smalls in Kigali have a huge price range; anything branded and imported (usually in flashy boutiques with glass counters and attentive tri-lingual sales assistants) are expensive; a pair of Daniel Hechter socks in taupe was the equivalent of £8, a pair of underpants is more, and that was in 2008; if you could find a street trader with clothes dripping off his arms, you could perhaps haggle a bargain for a second-hand pair. If second-hand underwear is your thing.
T2000, a multi-storey shop in central Kigali, was the place to buy most household goods under one roof; they sold everything from superglue to super-furry animal slippers; blankets, heating elements to heat up buckets of water, kettles, rice cookers, glittery stickers of birds and unicorns; duck tape and 12 pack tubs of cotton buds with smiling Chinese babies on their labels. You name it, they had it; the only thing they ever failed me on was dental floss. Thankfully they also sold socks and reasonably priced underwear. My sartorial struggle was over. My commando option was no more.
I emailed some friends in my Letter from Rwanda; a few days later I got an email from Claire, a friend who was out consulting on a contract in Ulan Batar in Mongolia.
“…To think, there are some people walking around Kigali wearing your own underwear…”
And then, for the first time in the whole episode, I started to see the funny side.
- If you are a member of the ‘Cincinnati Women’s Volleyball Club’, no offence intended. I don’t even know if you exist but if you do, I’ve tagged you in this post just in case. I know your donations came from a good place in your heart.
- Second hand clothes markets continue to be controversial in Africa. Donating clothes to Africa, some say, undermines local industries. The East African Community is considering an outright ban. Ghana in 2011 banned used knickers from the west due to hygiene factors and Uganda has also proposed a ban.
For a full table of contents of the blog series Letters from the Heart of Africa, including the background, please click here