Mitumba: The Second-Hand Road

Most people just get dressed in the morning without much thought to the clothes they put on other than whether they fit and look good.

If we stop liking them then we throw them out, give them to charity shops or simply put them into recycling bins where, we hope, our discarded clothes will be of use to someone less fortunate than ourselves.

Raffaele Brunetti traced one humble T-shirt's epic journey, to find out what does happen.

Mitumba, how the trade of second-hand clothes is known in Africa, is a revealing modern day story of how globalisation connects us all in millions of unseen ways, and how one person's disposable goods are someone else's new possessions.

Filmmaker Raffaele Brunetti joined Witness host Rageh Omaar to discuss the making of the film.

Rageh: Before I had seen your film I presumed when someone was giving away clothes a charity would pick up the clothes and give them out to people in Africa and Asia. But that does not happen at all from what I saw in your film?

Raffaele: We also thought the same thing, but in the film we interviewed a lot of people who were donating clothes and asked them where they thought they were going. They said they were being given for free to people in need.

But then we discovered the clothes are being sold and that in many cases it is not even the charitable organisation that collects the clothes but some commercial groups that are operating under the charities' names to collect the clothes and then a commercial chain begins.

This also generates work for a lot of local people. So the fact the clothes are not donated is a good thing as it generates an economy for people to buy and sell.

Did you talk to international aid organisations and charities about how the second-hand clothes system works?

The story of a T-shirt… about how it travelled from the north to the south of the world. It’s the inside-out story of a piece of clothing’s first and second life and everything that happens in between. The tale is told by the people involved in the second-hand clothes trade and by the thoughts of a traveller. He starts out from Hamburg, shadowing a T-shirt that belonged to Felix, a 10 year-old football fan. Four months later he arrives in Tanzania, at the village of Ilambilole. Along the way he encounters an incredible number of people who had something to do with the T-shirt and whose livelihoods revolve around the buying and selling of second-hand clothes and shoes: wholesalers, retailers, transporters, sorters…until it reached 9 year-old Lucky, another football fan with a passion for T-shirts that have a number on the back.

Second-hand clothes are in big demand in Africa
Of course we contacted many organisations, the big ones such as Caritas, the Red Cross and Oxfam. At first we did not get a big response to our questions and did not understand exactly why.

We do not think there is anything wrong with selling the clothes because of course the activity of these charitable organisations does not only consist of giving clothes to Africa.

They deal with many different things and it could be they are finding ways to fund their operations - such as second-hand clothes.

We suspected that the agencies did not want to make it clear they were selling the clothes and they may think that people are more willing to donate clothes if they think they are being given away for free. So this is probably one of the reasons we did not get a good response.

The irony is that your film shows there is a benefit from selling the clothes as it encourages economic self-help.

We believe agencies should make it clear what the aim of collecting the clothes is and where they are going.

A strange thing is that when we interviewed people in Africa, nobody believes that people in Europe or the US donate clothes but that they are selling them or that they belong to "dead white men". However, in the West, everyone thinks the clothes are donated.

Do you think there are people opposed to Mitumba in Africa?

Most people who give their clothes to charities do not know what is happening to them
There is opposition to Mitumba and when I was there I read some articles and interviewed some journalists and people from the government who said it was sort of shame that a country was forced to say that its people rely on second-hand clothes.

Another reason is there are now also economic agreements with countries such as China for the import of new clothes which are becoming cheaper and cheaper even if the quality is very low.

So now Mitumba, or second-hand clothes, are forced to compete with new clothes from China.

How much of this trade do you think is operating on the edges of the formal economy and the law - especially in Europe?

This is a very controversial subject and I was asked this question many times while making the film.

At the end of the film I say that I will continue to put my clothes in the boxes and we think this is good and the alternatives would be destroying or throwing away the clothes which would have an environmental impact and encourage the chain of fast consumerism.

Also, having been in Africa and see how many people deal in the clothes and how many people wear them, we decided that even if it is a controversial thing that needs better information on it, it is still worth doing - even if it will probably not last long.

Mpaka lini Africa tutavaa mitumba kwa nini wasifanye viwanda vya nguo ambapo wataweza kuvaa wenyewe hali hii inasikitisha sana.

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