(David hits the January sales in Arua...)
23.01.2015 32 °C
My cheap-o walking shoes from Decathalon that I have been wearing almost everyday while in Arua, are coming to the end of their lifespan. (I’m sort of glad as I haven’t ever really liked them.)
Clothes- shopping in town is an intense experience and so I enlist the help of my friend and former ORA colleague, Richard Disco (yes, that is his real name).
Clothing in Uganda is an interesting subject to me. A historical book about the Lugbara from the middle of last century (The Lugbara of Uganda by John Middleton) shows photographs of the Lugbara dressed only in loincloths to maintain decency. Nowadays, people dress very conservatively, for example, skirts should cover the knees. In fact, last year, President Museveni passed a bill to prohibit women wearing mini-skirts which has prompted some attacks on women who were deemed to be inappropriately dressed. The bill seems strange to me in a culture where breastfeeding in public is the norm and where traditionally, limited clothing was worn. In fact, clothing could be viewed as another Western import as African men started wearing suits through European influence. Wearing a suit is still considered socially important, despite the warm weather.
I meet Richard outside one of the two Chinese stores in town and we walk down the main Arua drag, busy with motorcyclist taxis, bicycles and a few all-terrain vehicles. As usual for the dry season, it is hot and dusty, not the most natural environment for a Scotsman. As we walk, we pass ‘hawkers’, people selling their wares of passion fruits or paw-paws from the plastic tubs carried on their heads. Other hawkers are laden down carrying a wide assortment of bags, pirated dvds, hats (balanced on their heads) and wallets.
My interest is in the clothes and shoes section of Arua town and Richard leads me through one of the most crowded and craziest parts of town, the taxi park, an area I would always avoid. Here, as I expected, I get attention that I don’t appreciate: young guys shouting at me in Lugbara or English “mundu come here!” or “give me something!” There are various decrepit-looking people holding out their hands for something and a teenager rubs his tummy gesturing that he is hungry. A deaf and dumb boy has a letter allegedly from the police allowing him to ask passers-by for funds. Thankfully, Richard knows a lot of people and we keep bumping into friends that he greets warmly with ‘Edri ngoni?’ ‘How’s life?’
I find it really strange that most people in Uganda seem very happy to wear second-hand clothes, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with logos which have no connection to their life or culture such as shirts with American flags on them with the words "I support our troops at home". In speaking to my friends, though, they tell me how pleased they are to buy 2nd hand, partly since it means they can afford clothes, but also because the quality is often better than the new clothing (cheaply made from the Far East) which looks tacky and feels like card. I have often wondered how these mainly American imports of GAP, Wall-mart or Timberland clothing gets into the market here in Africa and my clothing ‘field trip’ with Disco is helping me to discover the answer. Richard takes me to his friend, Robert, who is a dealer in bales of clothing coming from Raghvani textiles in India by container via Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. This Indian company sorts and grades clothes coming from North America. Raghvani textile’s name, e-mail and even web address is on each 45kg bale of clothing. Robert explains to me that the bales cost different prices depending on the grade of the clothes: there are high grade men’s shirts going at £150 per bale or lower grade bales at £50. I notice near the back there is a bale of ‘ski jackets’ and Robert explains that people like them in the rainy season where temperatures can stay in the low 20’s (Celsius)…brrrrr! There are even bales of gloves, 2nd hand underwear and bras! A bale is bought without the buyer really knowing what is in it, and so it is a bit of a ‘pot-luck’ as to what is available. Robert tells me that sometimes people return to him upset at what they have bought and he occasionally needs to give them another bale instead.
The clothes dukas where Robert’s customers sell the contents of their bales, are down small, canvass-covered alleys in which you have to watch your step on the uneven dirt. Sometimes, there are unknown squashy surprises under-foot. Inside the clothing market, it always seems like dusk as there is not much light and all the pathways make it seem like a giant African rabbit warren. All around there is activity as people are manning their small stalls while potential customers brush past in the narrow walkways. TVs and radios blare out music while shop owners try to call your attention to their stalls.
Richard drops in on a friend called Geoffrey who had spotted us passing and who owns one of the few walled shops in the marketplace. He sells new clothing, however, it is the poor quality, gaudy variety and none of it attracts me at all.
We walk on and find a small, smiling man in his stall where the shirts hang from poles on home-made wire coat hangers. I search for 2 short-sleeve shirts that cost me £2.50, I am pleased as one is a ‘Columbia’ walking shirt so should be good quality and cool for working on the land in the hot sun at ORA. There is a Calvin Klein shirt at the back, but it is stained.
In the shoe store, the shoes are all displayed on the four walls, hanging on wooden slats by nails punched into the sole of the shoe. It isn’t easy to choose something that I like and will fit properly and many of the shoes seem even older and tattier than mine. Helpful assistants are a bit too insistent on which shoes I should buy, mostly ones that I think are very ugly. In the end, Richard brings me a pair of shoes, they are a bit big, but better than most. I agree a price of around £10 with the Muslim owner and have my very first pair of Skechers.
Clothing etiquette is interesting in Uganda: Ugandans dress up to go the hospital or to go on a long bus journey. It also fascinates me that wearing woollen beanies is fashionable in 30 degrees heat. In the local gym, there is a treadmill which works when the power is on. People run on it in their flip flops or sparkly pumps. At the same place is the only swimming pool in Arua. People jump into the water in a wide variety of clothing, most of it not swimwear. Boxer shorts, leggings and t-shirts are all common swimsuits.
Another highly amusing pastime while moving around the streets is to read people’s t-shirts.
There are young guys wearing the ubiquitous football shirt: Mostly Arsenal, Manchester Utd or other big English Premier League teams. Sometimes I get excited when I spot a Rangers or Celtic jersey (I am not partisan…!)
Then there are the many ‘talking t-shirts’ giving developmental messages designed by NGOs promoting something:
“Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”
“Educate the girl-child”
“Get circumcised to minimise HIV infection”
“I have been circumcised.”
The funniest t-shirts are the random ones which make no sense in this context:
“Fish naked. It tickles.”
“Mental Health Dept. Patient”
“Grandpa is my name, spoiling is my game.”
“Dear Santa, I was framed.” (worn anytime of the year)
"Dear Santa, Take my Sister" (worn anytime of the year)
“You can’t beat our glazed doughnuts.”
“Pittsburgh water polo,”
“Tesco “Here to help”
“Burrito Eating Competition”
“Land O’ Frost. Great tasting Lunchmeat”
“Off to see the wizard”
“Pizza my heart”
“Making the great state of Ohio proud. Gold pants perfect season 12.”
“Soccermom” (worn by our male friend Patrick).
"The annual holiday hotdog huddle. July 16 2005"
Homework kills trees. Play more video games[/i]" A culturally inappropriate T-shirt]
Philosophically - speaking, I feel sad that Africa is the dumping ground for the West’s second-hand clothing. It doesn’t seem right and to me and continues the top-down relationship that the West has with Africa in many respects. Despite what my Uganda friends tell me, I am sure that wearing someone’s hand-me-down clothes from another culture far away can’t be healthy for a nation’s self worth and self image. I get encouraged when I see Africans wearing the more traditional and brightly coloured ‘kitenge’. I will also be greatly encouraged when most of the clothing worn on the streets is African-designed, African-made and affordable. This, I think, would be another important step for Africa towards what Martin Luther King called "Psychological Freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem".