As I packed up my 3-year-old white satin tutu-styled dress, (à la Carrie Bradshaw) in a large packing box to donate, I had an image of a young girl in my head. She’d be strutting around town, in Ghana somewhere, in the same dress. She’d be as fierce as Naomi on a Paris runway, as she walked down the paved village road.
Since my mom founded Asamang Relief Donation, Inc., a nonprofit organization that sends clothes and medical supplies to my family’s native Ghana, donating clothes has become a routine for me.
A lot of Americans donate, to churches, the workplace, Goodwill. The outlets for giving seem endless. But there has been some controversy about where those old clothes end up.
The companies that trade in used clothing aren’t always do-gooders like my mother, but cold, hard capitalists, who convert your used clothes into money, undercutting the African textile industry in the process.
So what some may see as an act of kindness may hinder the economic development and cultural traditions of the countries receiving the clothes.
I see this problem, but I have a different point of view. The slow demise of businesses that specialize in traditional African gowns can’t all be blamed on Western “donations.” A large part of the issue is the cost and time it takes to design traditional outfits. Ghanaians wear second-hand, thrift store clothing more than locally made material because traditional clothing can be very expensive and out of reach for the average working person.
The whole process of getting a traditional outfit has always been tedious. I’d have to wait weeks before something I was fitted for was created. Traditional outfits have to be fitted, designed and then the fabric is special ordered to sew. Getting an outfit not only costs for labor, but also wax cloth is very expensive.
In Amerca, I could go to a store, find something that fits, and keep it moving. I see why the threat of Western clothing is so dangerous to local textiles. Not only is it less tedious to buy, but it made a different statement. It said: “I belong in Western, modern society.”
Some of the continent’s designers have embraced the challenges of the used-clothing industry. Kwesi Nti is an emerging Ghanaian designer, who has perfected the art of fusing traditional with modern fashion trends.