A nice second-hand store in Lumakanda. Note that the owner (pictured) has added shoes, suitcases, and plastic buckets to her inventory.

When I went to college, my good parents bought me a new suit. When I got there I found out that I had to wear a coat and tie at every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I thought it would wreck my new suit coat if I used it at every meal so I went to Goodwill and bought a good second-hand coat for $15. When I told my Mom about this, she was horrified that I would wear second-hand clothes. Even then I didn’t agree with my Mom because it seemed much more economical. In the future I would also have added that it was reusing the finite resources of the world. I do vaguely remember that after World War II my Mom gave our used clothes to my paternal grandmother to send to her relatives in Poland; then as the Cold War set in, this was no longer possible.

If you agree with my Mom’s values, then you will be against the sale of second-hand clothes. This is called mitumba in Kenya which literally means “bundle” since the clothes are packed into 45 kilogram (100 pound) bundles. If you buy or support buying second-hand clothes at Goodwill or other charity organizations, then you support the resale of used clothes.

Super Cosmetics, a mitumba store for women. If you look through the door you can see women’s shoes for sale.

If you are interested in the subject, read Pietra Rivoli best-selling book, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. This describes how cotton in grown in Texas, shipped to China to be made into cloth and clothes, shipped back for sale in the US, and then donated to charity which is then bundled up and sent to Africa as mitumba. I think I remember from this book, which I read a long time ago, that the average American male buys three times the amount of clothes he needs, while the average American woman buys five times the amount of clothes she needs. This excess is what becomes mitumba.

Daughter-in-law, Irene, who just opened her shop for baby needs last week. She started with a bundle of baby blankets and added baby and children clothes.

An author is supposed to announce disclaimers: One of my sister-in-laws, one daughter, and one daughter-in-law all sell mitumba. This does illustrate one aspect of the trade – it is done mostly by women and requires some, but not a lot of resources, to establish the business. A bundle of mitumba costs around $135.

When I first came to Africa in the 1960s there was no mitumba. In up-country Tanzania many children five and under went around naked or with an old adult shirt that hung down to the feet. Now that there are inexpensive second-hand children’s clothes, children are no longer naked and even young poor children wear proper shirts and pants. Mitumba clothes are cheap. I estimate about 10% of the price when new. For example I sometimes buy used jeans here at 250/- ($2.50) which I would buy new in the US for $30 or so. The clothes are not always even used. I once bought a shirt with the price tag on it – the price was $9.95, then marked down to $4.95 and still it didn’t sell so I bought it new for 75 cents.

This shop is for men’s clothes. The man in the red shirt is the proprietor of this shop

All mitumba clothes are clean without tears or worn places. Since the clothes come from many sources over a long period of time, all clothes are different so that the customer has a much greater choice of style, color, and so on than is possible in a department store in the US. Mitumba also includes shoes.

In the supermarkets in Kenya a person can buy new clothes, but I have noticed that there are hardly ever any customers in the clothes sections of the supermarkets in Eldoret. Kenyans consider Mitumba clothes to be of higher quality than the new clothes which come mostly from China. Upper class Kenyans send their servants to the mitumba markets to buy high quality US brands for them. There are also locally made clothes, particularly, school uniforms and dresses made to order by the tailors in town from pieces of cloth that are sold by the meter. Kenyan women like bright, multi-colored outfits which are not common in the mitumba from the United States. There are many tailors in Lumakanda that make these dresses and uniforms.

Kids modeling mitumba clothes and the girls with their new braiding with beads. From the left, grand-niece Trinah, grand-daughter Faith, grand-daughter Rembo, and grand-son Brian.

I don’t like my children’s clothes to have the logo of a company on it as it then is just an advertisement for the company. Our grandson, Brian, has a T-shirt with a McDonalds’ logo on it. Since there are no McDonalds in Kenya and nobody knows what it is, I have to pass on this one. I once saw a boy with a St. Louis (where I grew up) Cardinal’s baseball T-shirt. I was quite excited and wanted to say to him that that was the baseball team in my home town when I grew up. Then I realized I would first have to tell him where St. Louis was, what a cardinal bird was, and then the sport of baseball. I resisted. Another time I saw a young woman with a shirt promoting gay culture; realizing the homophobia in Kenya, I decided it was prudent not to mention this to the young woman.

A smaller shop for shirts.

Mitumba came to Africa in the 1990s when neo-liberal economic policy forced African countries to open up their local markets. Prior to this some African countries including Kenya grew cotton and produced clothing for the local market. The liberalization of trade that led to the rise of the mitumba trade killed cotton farming and the clothing industry in these countries. This has led to angst among African governments and their economic advisors. In 2016 Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda agreed to ban in the importation of mitumba so that the cotton/clothing industry could revive. The United States government immediately responded that this was contrary to free trade and threatened retaliation on duty-free entry of East African goods into the US. The countries immediately caved, but they raised the taxes on the importation of the mitumba bundles. This is a great example how the United States uses its swagger to dominate the world to its own advantage.

Nothing, though, is straightforward. Kenya has decided to continue with their attempts to revive cotton farming and textile manufacturing. The first step has been to approve the trial of GMO cotton in Kenya – the first GMO crop approved in Kenya. This will begin with this current growing season. This again is a clever wedge by American corporations that sell GMO seeds to enter the Kenyan market where up to now, GMO crops have been banned.

I wore that Goodwill coat for years and years until it finally had some holes in it. I am still a proponent of mitumba. Even if the cotton/clothing industry is revived, it will take years and years for all the clothing segments to fill all the clothing niches. If mitumba were banned, children from poor families would again be poorly clothed as their parents would not be able to afford the new clothes.


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David Zarembka

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