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St. Croix T-Shirt Finds its Way to Uganda

July 31, 2007 — It may not seem unusual that Sarah wears a T-shirt reading “Pace Runners, U.S. Virgin Islands.”
But Sarah, 35, is not from the Virgin Islands. Indeed she is not even American, has no idea where the Virgin Islands are and knows nothing about Pace Runners. So why is she wearing this T-shirt?
Sarah is from the East African country of Uganda, and lives in a suburb of its capital city, Kampala, a few hundred miles from Lake Victoria.
Most Ugandans wear imported second-hand clothes, as do many people in poor Third World countries. Used shirts, blouses, pants, caps and other clothing reaches Uganda in huge bales from the United States, Canada, Great Britain and other developed countries, and are known locally as “mivumba.” Sarah bought her Virgin Islands T-shirt two years ago for 1,000 Ugandan shillings (about 60 cents) in Owino Market, the main market for mivumba in Kampala.
This second-hand clothes reality for Ugandans results in many interesting situations in different areas of life. In a running event, for example, as they stand at the starting line on a typically rutted grass track, what is a Ugandan runner likely to be wearing? A hodgepodge of gear. The vest may be Adidas, the shorts Nike, the socks Brooks and the spiked shoes Asics. But every item will have one thing in common — it will have had a previous First World owner who no longer wanted it and discarded it for something new.
While some may find it a little unsettling that the First World’s cast-offs are worn by the poor in the Third World, but in these environmentally conscious times, this flow of second-hand clothes can be viewed as an important form of recycling.
Every now and again there are calls in the Ugandan media for banning imports of second-hand clothes. Such a ban, it is claimed, would promote the development of homegrown textile industries and enhance economic growth. But this would not have the support of most Ugandans — for rather than expensive brand-new clothes, their preference is for the cheapness and variety of styles and fashion provided by imported second-hand clothes.
Sarah earns a living by frying cassava chips. She is married with four children — two boys, ages 6 and 15, and two girls, ages 5 and 14. Sarah works hard while generating an income for her family, wearing her Virgin Islands T-shirt with pride.
Editor’s note: Kevin O’Connor is a freelance journalist who writes on social and cultural issues and sports. He has a weekly column with a Ugandan newspaper, The Sunday Monitor, and a fortnightly one with The East African, also sold in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
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