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Obroni wawu

Updated: Apr 9, 2022

Fast fashion in Ghana

Kantamanto is the biggest second-hand clothing market in Ghana. Here, in the inner city of Accra, you find what Ghanaians call obroni wawu: ‘clothing from dead white people’. In times of fast fashion this expression doesn’t completely fit anymore. Clothing is being tossed away far before the end of a life. The prosperous, western consumer is constantly looking for something new and throwing money down the drain.

Text: Marije Nieuwland

Visual: Linda Valkeman

Strolling past the market stalls of Kantamanto, Linda Valkeman unravels the social impact of clothing donations. Linda is trained as a fashion designer, but her work can better be seen as a combination of design and anthropology. Therefore, she describes herself as a ‘material storyteller’. Using the traveled paths of garments, she puts together fashion passports. This way she gives voice to the story about the transmitter and receiver of the donations and starts a discussion about the current fast fashion industry.

Linda’s fashion passports map the journey of petrol pump-caps, inflatable flamingos, oven mitts, winter sweaters and used underwear. Such objects can for example be designed in France, made in China and worn in The Netherlands. One thing they all have in common, is that they have arrived at their final destination: the Ghanaian capital. If the clothes aren’t sold, they will end up on a plain just outside of Accra. A plain that for the next fifteen years is reserved for the burning of clothes that no one wants, ‘not even’ the poorest Ghanaians. But after just a year the plain is already packed.

More and more people criticise the current fashion industry. We seem to want to reflect on the production of the clothes we buy and wear. Fashion companies feel the duty to justify their choices in the field of working conditions and sustainability of materials. So, on the one hand, the consciousness of the beginning of the production chain is growing. But there is still too little attention for the end of that chain. Donating clothing is mostly seen as something positive: you are doing something nice for the ‘people in need’ on our planet and are giving garments a second life. However, the ethics of clothing donation are more complex than this. Linda shifts our attention to the waste mountain of fast fashion. Is this waste mountain a new colonial border?

Pass on well

‘Your second wardrobe’ can be read on the clothing containers of Wereld Missie Hulp. Together with the organizations Sympany and Curitas, Wereld Missie Hulp is determinative in the Dutch industry of clothing donation. You have probably cycled past one of these containers more than once. Maybe you even stopped and threw in a pair of worn-out Nike sneakers, assuming that they would be placed on a new shoe rack at some place far away. It probably gave a comforting feeling, this idea of a second wardrobe. This way it isn’t really waste, right? Time to buy a brand new pair of sneakers.

The donation of clothing isn’t always problematic or unethical, but charity isn’t the central value within a capitalist fast fashion system. Clothing donation has turned into a multi-million dollar industry. Only in The Netherlands, each year 112 million kilos of dumped clothing are being sorted. Apart from the fact that a lot of clothes are immediately thrown into the incinerator, about half of them are resold, after which they often end up on African second-hand markets like Kantamanto. In reality your discarded clothing won’t be donated. It will be traded to make profit. We can therefore question the slogan ‘pass on well’ on the containers of Sympany.

In the last fifteen years, the number of garments that a Dutch person buys in a year has doubled. These clothes are also thrown away twice as fast. Companies that sort the donated clothing don’t know what to do with all of it. A product that was once a luxury, has turned into a disposable. Quantity is chosen over quality. Luxury is no longer in the product itself, but in the ability that someone has to ‘buy, throw away and replace’.

The success of fast fashion is directly connected with the central place of the individual in the secularised, neoliberal consumer society. Within this society, individuals can develop their own ‘self’. Identity has become less fixed, especially now that lineage doesn’t define your future anymore. In that same society you are expected to sell yourself as a stable ‘brand’ on the job market. To do this, status is important. We dream about gaining a strong and clear identity to market ourselves, but can impossibly succeed in this. Identity isn’t engineerable and is no possession, but is changeable and relative. As a solution we turn to stuff, because that is stable and solid. Through clothing, people try to show who they really ‘are’. Fashion suggests a bridge between what exists in reality and what is just a dream. However, this bridge is an illusion: consuming stuff won’t make it possible to fixate identity. Still, the temporary feeling of engineerable constancy - that can be caused by fashion - is addictive. It is exactly because of the fact that this feeling is temporary, that we keep consuming.

Move the issue

The western consumer society has given a new meaning to the Ghanaian obroni wawu. It is no longer about the clothing of dead white people. The designers, manufacturers and first wearers of Kantamanto’s clothing are in most cases still alive. The donation of clothing is capitalised and has become an 'express train'. Ghana now has its own fast fashion. Just like in western cities, where Zara and H&M are weekly restocked with new items, in Accra each Wednesday- and Saturday morning a new cargo of discarded textiles is brought in. For a couple of Ghanaian cedi you can buy an Unox cap or a Barbie handbag.

The market of Kantamanto is popular and attracts a lot of style-conscious inhabitants of Accra. To better understand how Ghanaians relate to the obroni wawu they wear, Linda spoke to loyal visitors of the market. The reactions were mostly positive. Kantamanto is seen as a source of affordable and fashionable clothing. At the same time, the visitors of the market aren’t blind to the fact that local sellers are part of a global ‘clothing donation network’ that is mainly focused on making profits. The increasing market share of obroni wawu has consequences for young Ghanaian designers. They can’t compete with the low prices and large quantities. Because of this, there is a big shortage of jobs in the creative industries. The import of western clothing endangers the survival of the Ghanaian creative industries.

The disguised consequences of the western clothing industry become visible. Kantamanto is the final stop of fast fashion. The surpluses are huge. Local designers can’t compete with the arrival of huge quantities of ‘donated clothing’. A big part even ends up on waste mountains outside the city. ‘We produce more than we can consume, we consume more than we can use, we waste’, Linda concludes.

Western ideal

Objects, like pieces of clothing, always bring a story with them. The continuous import of fast fashion tells the story of a neoliberal ideal of engineerability and of a western ideal of beauty. This can clearly be seen in the weekly cargo of obroni wawu, that expresses a fascination with speed and efficiency. Next to that, the Disney princesses on the children’s bags, the soccer jerseys with Ronaldo's name and the tight dresses inspired by the Kardashians show us what is worthy to pursue. However, according to Linda, the visitors of Kantamanto have creative ways of dealing with these 'donations'. Clothing is being tailored and put together into whole new outfits. The current Ghanaian fashion is the result of a continuous dialogue with the West.

‘This is a dialogue between me and obroni wawu and the uneasiness I feel finding myself in the middle of it all. Every knot, every section carries information’, explains the Ghanaian fashion designer Eyiwaa to Linda. Eyiwaa makes bags by tying different fabrics of obroni wawu together. She creates something new that is difficult to associate with the western origin of the fabrics. Eyiwaa’s bags show that the meaning of a piece of clothing can change with time and place. The freedom that is expressed in the alteration of clothing makes it difficult to state that clothing donation imposes a western ideal of beauty. What can be concluded, is that a western ideal is communicated through obroni wawu and that Ghanaians thereafter creatively give a new meaning to this ideal.

The most obtrusive story is told by all the clothing of Kantamanto together: buy, wear and throw away. The way this happens shows how a colonial power relationship is being maintained. Worldwide, raw materials and manpower are being exhausted to make the production of western clothing companies as efficient as possible. The surpluses and leftovers are used to ‘save’ people in African countries, but in reality the donation of clothing doesn’t take into account the real needs of the people. The results are inappropriate donations like gloves and caps, and plains full of waste in these former colonies because there are simply too many ‘donations’. For the western consumer clothing donation is mainly a way of looking away from the big environmental issue they create themselves.

Colonial borders

In October 2019, Linda’s work was part of an exhibition in Maastricht during the Fashion Clash Festival. She alternated fashion passports and creatively fabricated outfits with pictures of bumps of waste. The visitors went home with sharp questions: ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Or should we say: one man’s food is another man’s poison?’.

The donation of clothing isn’t the problem. What is alarming, is the quantity and speed of it. Huge amounts of fast fashion are moving across the planet at a high speed. But this can’t be without a final destination. In Ghana it becomes clear how fashion is turned into waste. We seem to be blind to the truth of the western consumer society: the West consumes too much. Countries in Asia, South America and Africa are being used to make fast and cheap production possible. Subsequently, the same countries are used as landfill for the surpluses.

Fast fashion is like the 4 x 100 metres relay: a capitalist race in which the baton is a

piece of clothing. Fashion companies challenge each other to hand over their batons as fast as possible. A designer from Europe gives the baton to a producer in Southeast Asia, after which it ends up mainly in western stores and eventually in your wardrobe. However, the race doesn't stop there yet. It might be out of sight, but there is a clear finish line which is exactly the same line as former colonial borders.

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