“Do you want some skinny jeans?”
We didn’t even notice him walk up behind us, this young gangly guy who directed us to his stall where he was selling racks and racks of American branded jeans. We were at Toi market on a deeply hot, sunny day in Nairobi. Sweat crept down our backs as we wandered through the sprawling dusty maze of people hawking everything from hats and shoes to oranges and mangoes. In Kenya, the best clothes shopping can be found not at the expatriate-crowded malls or shopping centers, but at this large market that pushes into Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum. There Kenyans can find for a few dollars designer American and European brands that retail for hundreds more in the West. The market, and smaller ones like it, are vital daily hubs of activity: the constant hustle and creativity when it comes to the trade of secondhand clothing is a hallmark of urban life in Africa.
Two girlfriends and I were already saddled with plastic bags filled with sundresses and blouses we had bought at other vendors, but were amused enough by the skinny jeans line to look at his wares. Donated and used clothing is a touchy topic in Africa because many countries’ textile industries collapsed under the weight of secondhand clothing imports that were introduced in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, more than any other region, East Africa boasts a booming secondhand scene.
Philanthropists, like the very misguided Jason Sadler and his million t-shirts, still want to donate clothing to African countries. But if there are some truths in East Africa, one is that the dynamic efficiency and innovation of the secondhand clothing trade will never cease to continue.