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Vassar College

Publication Date

Spring 2008

Program Name

Kenya: Development, Health and Society

Abstract

One surprisingly unstudied and little documented aspect of the present-day African market system– almost impossible to ignore when one is walking the streets of Kampala and bombarded by its presence– is second-hand clothing. This study investigates the history, systems, and perceptions of the second-hand clothing market in Kampala, Uganda. Combining an ethnographic analysis with historical research, this paper details how a western commodity is changed, both in meaning and form, and interacted with on a local level– adding to anthropological literature that analyzes how local cultures interact, and not passively react, to globalization.

The emergence of the large second-hand clothing market can be traced to the economic crisis during Idi Amin’s regime after the expulsion of the Asians from Uganda– and then to international trade policy and development paradigms (pushed by world superpowers like the U.S.) that have suffocated Uganda’s own potential for a textile industry but have also pushed them towards opening their markets to foreign goods– the only ones which they can afford are used. This paper contends that the second-hand clothing market is a brilliant adaptation to these historical and global forces—a way to get affordable, durable, and highly demanded Western apparel and style to the many Ugandans who want it. Furthermore, by documenting the extensive systems of this trade and the complex ways used clothing from the West has been integrated into Ugandan culture, this study shows that Ugandans are not using second-hand clothing, as many outsiders have implied, to imitate Western styles with developed countries’ hand-outs. They instead engage with the clothing in a market system and mind-frame that is local, Ugandan in origin. Used clothing, therefore, is not an artifact of the North’s neocolonial dominance of the South or evidence of the spread of Western consumer fetishes; it is rather an extraordinary African solution to the binds of international economic power structures.

Disciplines

Anthropology | Business

 

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