What happens to the clothes you give to charity? Journalist George Packer followed on jersey T-shirt around the world to find out.
If you've ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are that you've dressed an African. All over Africa, people are wearing what Americans once wore and no longer want. Visit the continent and you'll find faded remnants of secondhand clothing in the stranges of places, like the "Let's Help Make Philadelphia the Fashion Capital of the World" T-shirt on a Malawian laborer. The white bathrobe on a Liberian rebel boy with his wig and his automatic rifle. And the muddy orang sweatshirt on the skeleton of a small child, lying on it's side in a Rwandan classroom that has become a genocide memorial.
A long chain of charity and commerce binds the world's richest and poorest people in accidental intimacy. It's a curious feature of the global age that hardly anyone on either end knows it. A few years ago, Susie Bayer bought a T-shirt for her workouts with the personal trainer who comes regularly to her apartment on East 65th Street in Manhattan. It was a pale gray cotton shirt, size large, made in the U.S.A. by JanSport, with the red and black logo of the University of Pennsylvania on its front. Over time, it got a few stains on it, and Bayer, who is 72, needed more drawer space, so last fall, she decided to get rid of the shirt. She sent it, along with a few other T-shirts and a couple of silk nightgowns, to the thrift shop that she has been donating her clothes to for the past 40 years. When I told Susie Bayer that I was hoping to follow her T-shirt to Africa, she cried, "I know exactly what you're doing!" As a girl, her favorite movie was Tales Of Manhattan--the story of a coat that passes from Charles Boyer through a line of other people, bringing tragedy or luck, before finally falling out of the sky with thousands of dollars in the pockets and landing on the dirt plot of a sharecropper played by Paul Robeson.
Twenty-four blocks north, up First Avenue, the Call Again Thrift Shop is run by two blunk-spoken women named Virginia Edelman and Marilyn Balk. They sit in their depressing back office, surrounded by malfunctioning TVs and used blenders and a rising sea of black garbage bags. The women inspect every item that comes in, searching for any reason to get rid of it. Their dank little basement, crammed with last year's mildewing clothes, has no more room. Their shop space is limited, and their customers are relentlessly picky. One day a few years ago, relief came to them in the form of a young man named Eric Stubin who runs the Trans-mericas Trading Company, a textile recycling factory in Brooklyn. He said that he was willing to send a truck every Tuesday to haul away what the women didn't want and that he would pay them three cents a pound for it. Bayer's T-shirt goes straignt into the Trans-Americas pile. "We have a thousand of them," Edelman says. "Get it out of here."
This is where the trail grows tricky, for what had been charitable suddenly crosses the line that tax law and moral convention think inviolable--it turns commercial, and no one likes to talk very much about what happens next. Some sources estimate that of the 2.5 billion pounds of clothes that Americans donate each year, as much as 80 percent gets trucked off to places like Trans-Americas. Trans-Americas' five story brick building stands a block from the East River in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Inside, 60,000 pounds of clothes a day pour down the slides from the top floor, hurry along conveyor belts where Hispanic women stand and fling pieces into this bin or down that chute, fall through openings from floor to floor and land in barrels and cages, where they are then pressure-packed into clear-plastic 4-foot-high bales and tied with metal strapping--but never washed. Watching the process feels a little like a visit to the slaughterhouse. There are more than 300 export categories at the factory, but the four essential classifications are "Premuim," "Africa A," "Africa B," and "Wiper Rag." "Premium" goes to Asia and Latin America. "Africa A"--a garment that has lost its brightness--goes to the better off African countries like Kenya. "Africa B"--a stain or small hole--goes to the continent's disaster areas, its Congos or Angolas. By the time a shirt reaches Kisangani or Huambo, it has been discarded by its owner, rejected at the thrift shop, and graded two steps down by the recycler.
Standing in Trans-Americas' office, Eric Stubin casts a professional eye on Bayer's T-shirt. In a week, a 54,000-pound container of used clothes will set sail on the steamship Claudia, destination Mombasa, Kenya. Stubin spots a pink stain on the belly of the T-shirt below the university logo and tosses the shirt aside. "Africa," he says. At the vast Owino market in downtown Kampala, Uganda's capital, you can find every imaginable garment, all of it secondhand. The used-clothing market is the densest, most electric section of Owino--the only place where ordinary Africans can join the frenetic international ranks of consumers.
I knew what this thrice-rejected clothing had gone through to get here, but somehow "Africa" looks much better in Africa--the colors brighter, the shapes shapelier. A dress that moved along a conveyor belt like a gutted chicken becomes a dress again when it has been charcoal-ironed and hangs sunlit in a Kampala vendor's stall. Some of the stock looks so good tha tit gets passed off as new in the fashionable shops on Kampala Road. On a Saturday afternoon in December, the truck carrying the Trans-Americas shipping container with Bayer's T-shirt pulls into a Kampala warehouse after its long drive from the port of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. Seven customers--wholesalers from all over Uganda--anxiously wait along with Trans-America's buyer in Kampala, a Pakistani named Hussein Ali Merchant.
Among the wholesalers is a heavy woman in her 40s with a look of profound disgust on her fleshy face. Her name is Proscovia Batwaula, but everyone calls her Mama Prossy. As the bales start leaving the container on the heads of the young porters, Mama Prossy literally trhwos her weight around to claim the ones she wants. Stubin has stenciled my initials on the bale containing Bayer's T-shirt. But I never imagined 540 bales coming off the truck at a frantic clip, turned at all angles on young men's heads, amid the chaos of bellowing wholesalers. Finding the T-shirt suddenly seems impossible.
Moments later, good luck. Merchang spots my bale coming off the truck, the initials "GP" all of three inches high. Mama Prossy insists on the right to tear it open and have a look. She angles for a price cut from Merchant. They settle on the equivalent fo $60 for the bale, a price that amounts to 19 cents a shirt. At the market in Jinja, a city some 50 miles east of Kampala, Mama Prossy sits like a queen on her wooden storage bin and watches the morning trade. At her feet, half a dozen retailers poke through the innards of the Trans-Americas bale. Her retailers sort hte T-shirts by their own three-tier grading system. Bayer's is rated second class and goes for 60 cents to a slender, grave young man in slightly tattered maroon trousers who seems intimidated by the queen on her throne. His name is Philip Nandala, and he is the next to last link in the chain. Nandala is an itinerant peddler of used clothes, the closest thing in Uganda to the 19th-century rag dealer with his horse drawn cart--except that Nandala transports his 50-pound bag from market to market by minibus or on his own head, five days a week on the road.
The end of the road is a small hilltop town, green and windswept, called Kapchorwa, about 110 miles northeast of Mama Prossy's stall in downtown Jinja. Nandala spreads his wares on a plastic sheet at the foot of a brick wall and works hard all day, a tape measure around his neck. Poor rural Ugandans, the chain's last links, crowd close, arguing and pleading, but Nandala is now the one with power, and he barely stirs from his asking prices. One young man comes back half a dozen times to try on the same gray gooded coat. But Nandala wants $4.70, the customer has only $1.75. The customer finally walks away, and suddenly I feel sad. Now that I have seen how Africans prize so hightly what we throw away, the trail of Suzie Bayer's T-shirt only seems to tell one story, a bery old one, about the unfairness of the world as it is.
The T-shirt is buried deep in Nandala's pile. My flight back to New York is leaving in four days, and I am concerned about missing it. So I reach into the pile, wanting to position the T-shirt more advantageously. As soon as I touch it, the shirt flies out of my hand. An old man in an embroidered Muslim cap, who is missing his lower front teeth, holds it up for inspection. Tracing with his finger, he puzzles out the words printed in red and black around an academic insignia: "University Pennsylvania," he says. He dances away, brandishing the shirt in his fist. Ninety cents was his first offer, but Nandala won't budge from $1.20. Eventually, the old man pays. Yusuf Mama, 71, has found what he wants. I asked him why, of all the shirts in the pile, he has chosen this one. "It can help me," he says vaguely. "I have ony one shirt."
Later, when I tell the story to people back in Kampala, they shake their heads. Yusuf Mama wanted Susie Bayer's T-shirt, they say, because a white man had touched it.