Ghana Life: dead man’s clothing

Like many developing countries, Ghana has both its traditional forms of dress, now mainly reserved for funerals and festivals, and Western dress that has been adopted for everyday wear at work and at home. Although in the first decades of independence there were many skilled tailors and seamstresses who made a living providing clothing for men and women, boys and girls, in the last fifteen years of the 20th century the main source of Western-style clothing became the western. the countries themselves. However, the imported clothing was not new, but used clothing known in Ghana as oboroni wawu, ‘the white person is dead’ or ‘dead man’s clothing’.

In the kalebule era under the dictatorship of Colonel/General Ignatious Kutu Acheampong (January 1972-July 1978) and then General Fred Akuffo (July 1978-June 1979), foreign exchange was very scarce and imports were very high. controlled. In this economic environment, local small-scale industries flourished and developed rapidly, as local needs had to be met by local effort. This was the height of the informal sector in which developments in the local textile industries supported the expansion of the tailoring and dressmaking trades. With a brief hiatus during the Democratic interlude under President Hilla Limann (September 1979 to December 1981), strict import controls resumed after the second arrival of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings on December 31, 1981.

Despite Rawlings’s initial promise never to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), by 1983 the IMF was dictating economic policy and by 1985 cheap foreign goods were flooding Ghana, financed with long- and medium-term loans. Undoubtedly, there was some importation of used clothing before this time, but it was from the mid-1980s that the large-scale importation of oboroni wawu became a major topic in the media and a talking point in conversations. everyday life, as well as a socioeconomic problem. government concern.

Attitudes toward importing used clothing were mixed. Many people felt it was shameful to wear other people’s discarded clothing and burden their children with the obligation to repay loans that would extend well beyond the useful life of the clothing. The government mourned the demise of the local textile and garment industries and the resulting loss of employment. Meetings were held to determine whether to impose import restrictions, but this policy was rejected because it would have raised the cost of living, caused social unrest, and broken the free trade agreement with the IMF. The government ministers agreed that everyone was dependent on the oboroni wawu, including themselves.

In this era of free trade, importation was in the hands of merchants who brought into Ghana the cheapest products available, regardless of quality. Most of the newly manufactured goods came from China, but used clothing came from Britain and other European countries. It arrived at the port of Tema, 30 km east of the capital Accra, in large cloth-bound bales about two meters in diameter. The goods were dispatched by the importers and transported to the markets of the main cities and regional capitals.

To be present at the opening of the bundles was to witness a social phenomenon of considerable interest. The women merchants who retailed the products to the general public specialized primarily in one line of clothing: men’s shirts, T-shirts, pants, women’s dresses, underwear, etc. Each was eager to obtain the best specimens available: less used, in the latest fashion, of the highest quality. Then, when the haphazardly mixed bales of goods were opened, there was a rugby scrum of activity that threatened to erupt into all-out war. The violence seemed to be limited only by the universal understanding that no one could sell a badly torn shirt, but this convention did not prevent some sturdier items from being subjected to a spirited tug-of-war.

After the fight for the goods came the haggling of the price, but here the owner of the bale exercised an almost dictatorial power. Prices were necessarily arbitrary, but experience brought a degree of standardization to commonly traded items. The system was familiar to all participants and worked consistently for the next decade. There were too many vested interests at all levels for any fundamental change.

Only the increase in prosperity can put an end to oboroni wawu. In the 21st century, with Ghana ascending to lower-middle income status, people will be able to buy more of an emerging fashion trade supported by local textile industries, processing Ghanaian cotton and adopting the relatively new artisan skills of tie-dyeing. and batik. Hopefully, enough of the tailors and seamstresses of the 1970s will have survived to pass on their skills to a generation that must produce the wealth to pay off the loans of the 1980s.

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