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September 26, 2006

The Travelling Sweater

This morning in the Atlantic I read a story by Jaqueline Novogratz, CEO of the Acumen Fund that I wanted to share. As a child, Novogratz had a blue sweater with animals and mountains on it that her uncle had given to her. When she was fourteen, a boy at school made a lewd comment to her about the sweater, and she promptly gave the sweater to Goodwill and forgot about it. Twelve years later, she was jogging in Kigali, Rwanda, and saw a boy wearing her sweater. She ran up to him to check the label and, sure enough, her name was on it.

Having read Salaula by Karen Hansen, I was not terribly shocked by this story, but it did reaffirm for me that all of our actions affect others. Salaula explains how second-hand clothing from the U.S. and Europe gets to Africa, and the meanings these Western fashions take on when worn by Africans. Only about a quarter of the clothing we give to Goodwill or other such organizations actually gets resold in the United States. The rest is sold by the pound to middlemen, usually in Belgium or the Netherlands, then shipped to Africa, where it is sold in marketplaces or on streetcorners. There are two ways to get clothes in Africa: have them made for you or buy them secondhand. "Salaula" literally means "dead white men's clothes."

When I was in Ghana in the summer of 2005, I was surprised to see Ghanaians wearing University of Michigan t-shirts. The first time I saw this, I went up to the man to tell him that I was from Michigan. He had no idea what I was talking about. He was not a Michigan football fan; he probably didn't even know what Michigan was. Michigan meant absolutely nothing to him. Or, rather, Michigan probably did mean something to him, but it meant something totally different than what it means to me. After all, even though the shirt was second hand, he still chose it, and must have chosen it for a reason.

Posted by eklanche at September 26, 2006 10:06 AM

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