Dead White Man's Clothes
Words by Liz Ricketts and J. Branson Skinner
Photographs by Charlie Engman and Prince Gyasi
5°33′00.5″ N, 0°12′31.2″ W
It’s 5 AM on Saturday and Abena dresses for work. Using the light of her phone to guide her to the kitchen, she moves quietly, trying not to wake her two children, who returned just yesterday from spending Christmas holiday with their grandmother. They will start school on Monday—Junior in primary school and Prince in junior high school—and they must be well rested.
Abena is tired, but today is day six, the last day of her workweek. Tomorrow she will rest, attend church, catch up with her boys, and pound fufu for a shared family meal. Saturday is a market day, the busiest day of the week. Abena is in a rush to get to Kantamanto early, so she doesn’t get stuck in gridlock traffic and miss her top customers. The sun is rising as she grabs a water sachet and her trusty money pouch. Winding through the neighborhood to the Nungua trotro stop, Abena does some mental calculations, setting her sales goals for the day. She knows the market will be slower than it was before Christmas (everyone has spent their money), but she hopes she can get a good bale with at least 50 pieces of first selection that she can sell before 11 AM. She prays on it during the ride to work. “As a Christian, in everything, God should be first.”
Abena’s commute takes an hour when traffic is light, and it’s a beautiful ride. It’s Harmattan, the dry season in Ghana, when the sun’s rays are often softened by a dusty haze, but the sun is shining bright today, glistening on the Gulf of Guinea. Most days, Abena attempts to sleep on the way in to Accra, but today, she is seated in the first row of the haphazard bus known as a trotro. Pressed against the window, the distractions are plenty. Her ride takes her past the Achiase Military Training School and small stretches of yet-to-be-developed beach. They pass the street where her boutique, Cynthia’s Palace, used to be—Cynthia being her Christian name. It was a small container shop that sold mostly first selection obroni w’awu (used clothing, literally “dead white man’s clothes”). She had done alright, but her sister Yaa had advised Abena that she could make more money if she operated out of Kantamanto. “If you are a woman and you don’t work and your schooling is not too high, you have to sell,” Abena says.
The driver plays music videos on the dashboard TV. She can barely hear the lyrics over the news blaring from another passenger’s mobile phone behind her, but she catches glimpses of the costumes. Abena tries to keep up with the latest music videos because customers are often inspired by what the artists are wearing. Most of her fellow riders (there are 18 of them) are busy scrolling, tapping, and talking on their phones, but Abena left hers behind today for Junior to play his favorite game. Glancing to her right, she sees that the young man next to her is checking his Facebook for likes on a picture he posted the night before. He is seeking approval for his outfit—a delightful combination of obroni w’awu on top and local cloth on the bottom, his pants probably sewn by his family’s neighborhood tailor. Today, he sports a full Off-White look, and Abena wonders if he works in Kantamanto. A lot of young men seem to like that brand, but she doesn’t find any of it in her UK bales of women’s tops.
As the trotro draws closer to Accra, traffic begins to slow. The sounds and smells of the sprawling metropolis intensify. The bells of the street-food vendors compliment the hiplife music coming from the trotro’s stereo, which is soon overpowered by gospel music blaring from a portable PA system. The scent of burning trash mixes with that of fried yam and the ocean breeze. Abena buys another water sachet from the hawkers who take advantage of traffic stops to visit each trotro with their goods. You can get anything from these informal vendors: water, kleenex, mango, phone credit, fire extinguishers, a shoe rack complete with six pairs of shoes, detergent, toothbrushes, passport holders, drumsticks, limes, and secondhand clothing. She glances at the Facebook boy’s phone, it’s nearly 6:30 AM. By the time the trotro stops and Abena makes her way through the maze of Makola—the market adjacent to Kantamanto—commercial activity will be in full swing. She is late. If she had her phone, Abena could text Maabena, a fellow retailer, to let her know.
We leave our Airbnb around 6 AM, our journey to Kantamanto taking less than 20 minutes on foot. Despite repeating this same walk over a hundred times, there is always something new to see. Since our last trip, in 2017, the market has sprawled, with piles of secondhand clothing being sold nearly half a mile before Kantamanto officially begins. Even before the sun is up, trading is well underway, with a few dealers using flashlights to cast light on their goods while eager consumers shine their cell phone on the items for a closer look. We walk quickly past a whirlwind of color and an ever-surprising mixture of aromas. Piles of panties and bras sit next to bowls of fried fish and baskets of delicious green pepper. The sellers shield themselves from the impending sunshine with wide brimmed hats, colorful umbrellas, and excess clothing.
We are early enough to catch the dump truck at the edge of the market. Three men haul bags of refuse onto the truck. We stop to take pictures of the waste generated by Kantamanto the day before. Some people pass by, laughing at us for taking pictures of the bola. How strange it is to document such a thing. Others express their anger, concerned that our pictures might be used to perpetuate the poverty narrative of “Africa” that often dominates people’s perceptions in Europe and the United States.
A hair salon has taken over the four stalls next to Abena’s, one of the few changes since we were last on her side of the market, in 2017. The repurposed billboard vinyl roof has been replaced by tin, and a latrine appears to have been hastily constructed along the back wall of the market area. But the traders’ stalls are still made of unfinished wood and nails. Nothing about the structure of the place feels permanent, and yet Abena is exactly where we last saw her, over a year before.
Abena arrives and another retailer runs over to deliver a message. The market’s social network offers glimpses of a thriving collectivist mentality. Abena’s section of the market is the newest and perhaps least permanent part of Kantamanto, which has a footprint of roughly seven acres. The retailers in this section are almost all women, and they sell mostly women’s clothing. Everyone working in Abena’s part of the market knows one another, and everyone watches out for one another—delivering messages, assisting with the weight of the clothing, and even stepping in to help sell one another’s goods. Aunty Abena is clearly respected and loved by her colleagues. She is an experienced retailer who offers advice to the younger ones. She is protective of her friends, and at times, she is also the life of the party, a comedian on a pedestal of clothing.
Moments after Abena arrives, a young woman comes into view carrying the bale Abena had purchased on Thursday, letting the bale drop from atop her head to the floor of Abena’s stall with a thud. Carrying the bale doesn’t look so hard.
We have known Abena since the first day we began our research, in 2016. We have watched her cut many bales—UK bales when she is making a profit and Canada bales when last week’s sales weren’t as good. Abena only sells ladies’ tops. (Each retailer in the market chooses one item, usually from the same country, in order to differentiate themselves.) Abena’s customers, mostly office workers and women who manage boutiques outside of the market, have come to expect a certain quality of item from Abena, even though Abena has no control over the contents of her bales.
“I have been here for three years now. It has changed. When I came here, if I cut one bale, I would sell it all and get my money back, but nowadays, if you cut a bale it is very hard to get back your money.”
Abena readies herself, pulling her stool closer to the bale, taking a deep breath and cutting the metal bands that compress over 400 pieces of clothing into a 34 x 16 x 14 inch bale weighing at least 120 pounds. A label indicates “UK Mixed Ladies Tops,” but the woven plastic wrapping conceals any details of the garments inside.
Bales of clothing like the one Abena is cutting arrive on the importer side of Kantamanto in 40-foot shipping containers throughout the week. These containers make their way from Ghana’s main port in Tema Harbour, a city some 25 minutes past Abena’s home. Our research has concluded that there are roughly 100 containers offloaded in Kantamanto on a weekly basis. Each container holds an average of 400 120-pound bales, with each bale containing secondhand and deadstock clothing that has been collected and packed abroad. That adds up to nearly five million pounds of clothing flowing through the market every week. At an average of three garments per pound, that’s roughly 15 million items. We calculate that some of those items immediately make their way to other markets and other countries, leaving Kantamanto with around 11 million items of clothing to sell each week. By all accounts, Kantamanto is the largest secondhand clothing market in Ghana, but it is not the only secondhand market in the country where containers are offloaded. To put that in perspective, the population of Ghana is 30 million people.
Once Abena has cut the bale and peeled away the plastic, sorting begins. The selection process involves dividing the clothes into four categories. First selection is the top-quality garments. Quality is subjective, but generally, a first selection garment includes anything that has never been worn (deadstock and donated goods with tags still attached) and trendy items (both in brand and silhouette) that are clean and free of holes. Abena will sell a first selection top for 10 Ghana cedis (about $2). Second selection includes worn but trendy, well-maintained items that are the right size for the retailer’s customer base. Third selection includes anything that has obvious signs of wear, is noticeably faded, is the wrong size (too large), or is culturally taboo (e.g. booty shorts). The final category is referred to as asie or “under.” This is what the retailer immediately considers to be trash, including non-clothing items (plastic waste, food, a random boot), slashed deadstock (a common fashion industry practice), torn or deteriorating garments, and clothing that is covered in stains or offensive smells.
Bales are expensive. Contrary to popular belief, donated clothing is often not handed out for free to people in need. Individual bales cost between $75 and $400. Considering other expenses (rent, sanitation fees, storage fees), retailers need to recoup at least 75 percent of the bale’s price with the sale of first selection alone. If they cut a bale and find that it contains only a few first selection pieces, the retailer will not make their money back. At times, the situation can be remedied by taking a chance on another bale, but more often than not, such doubling down sends the retailer further into debt.
For this reason, most secondhand clothing retailers describe their job as gambling.
Through survey data, interviews, and reviewing retailers’ financial logs, we have found that the average bale contains 18 percent first selection, 30 percent second selection, 46 percent third selection, and 6 percent “under.” Of the retailers we surveyed, 46 percent did not make their money back on their last bale and only 16 percent made a profit. While most traders have the cash flow to buy food and take public transit, living expenses—like electricity, children’s school fees, and phone data—become a luxury.
The market days when the vast majority of bales are cut open—Wednesdays and Saturdays—are filled with a tense energy among the retailers. At the same time, many Ghanaian consumers come to the market excited. Shoppers huddle around the retailers as they sort, hoping to snag first selection items—just as consumers in the Global North stand in lines for product drops. But in Kantamanto, exclusivity truly reigns supreme, as it is nearly impossible to find two of the same item. For consumers, market days represent opportunity. Not only are the price points accessible, so too is the expression of identity through style.
It takes Abena around 40 minutes to sort roughly 400 ladies’ tops. Today, Abena’s bale is good, with 70 pieces of first selection—more than she had hoped for this morning—and no more than 30 pieces of “under,” which now lay in the dirt aisle. The selection process gives insight into the expertise of the retailers: Each seller knows her customers, and many of the sellers keep up with international trends and celebrity influencers. Abena’s first customers are two boutique owners who buy up half of the first selection. Their boutiques cater to young women working in an office or a bank. They buy and sell only first selection obroni w’awu, mixed with counterfeit products from China. One of the boutique owners asks Abena to reduce the price of a shirt to five Ghana cedis, saying that a young office woman won’t spend more than “seven Ghana” on a style like that. Abena says she will only reduce the price if this customer also takes three pieces of second selection. Money is exchanged. Abena has managed to shrink the quantity of goods piling, quite literally, around her.
Abena is happy. She hopes to sell all of her first selection today along with some second selection. Monday and Tuesday will be dedicated to selling off more of her second selection, before she cuts a new bale on Wednesday. With the pace of goods coming in from overseas, consumers expect fresh goods at least twice a week. This puts a limit on the time she has to sell everything. After one week, whatever is left from the bale she cut today will become undesirable excess, last week’s haul, in need of removal.
We leave Abena to her business and make our way across the market to visit with another retailer, David Adams.
There are over a dozen ways to get to David’s stall from Abena’s. We choose to wind through the heart of the market, instead of returning to the street. The aisleways are small, most no more than three feet wide. There are at least 5,000 sheds like Abena’s. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly estimates that 30,000 people work in Kantamanto, the overwhelming majority of them engaged in the trade of secondhand clothing.
If we were given one word to describe Kantamanto, it would be “vibrant.” No day spent in Kantamanto is the same, just as no item is the same. Similar to any center of commerce, auxiliary services cater to the needs of both consumers and traders like Abena and David. Readymade food and daily groceries can be procured while walking around. Both the local news and scripture are broadcast by committed individuals with megaphones in hand. During election season, promoters of each political party can also be found vying for attention. Beauty products are in good supply, and retailers can even receive a pedicure while they market their goods.
And yet, this vibrancy can also read as chaos. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff.
Because that is the constant: stuff. Clothing, shoes, accessories. Piles and piles. Piles sitting, piles moving. People sitting on piles. Standing on piles. Walking on piles. Sleeping on piles. Everywhere. Stuff.
“Ago! Ago!” That means move. A young woman, no older than 16, is struggling to make it through the crowded aisles carrying a 120 pound bale on her head. We clumsily step aside.
Continuing toward David’s takes us through another woman-dominated part of the market, past several storage rooms, past a dyeing station where lighter-colored denim is dyed black, past a hidden bar with slot machines, and through one of several sewing centers where tailors mend and alter clothing for both retailers and consumers. It is not uncommon to find consumers ordering alterations in order to mimic trending looks by Rihanna or M.anifest. Just beyond the hum of sewing machines is a screenprinting service, where customers can design their own graphics or have brand logos, like Nike and Adidas, added to whatever they bought. Behind the sewing and screenprinting, lies the laundering services—cleaning, ironing, starching—and the cobbler where you can repair and customize.
Kantamanto is full-service.
This blend of consumption, customization, and cocreation seems to be precisely what everyone is striving for with new “experiential retail” models in the Global North. Ghana has it. Additionally, the secondhand clothing trade is an accessible source of material. In fact, two of Abena’s most consistent customers are a pair of high school-aged boys who purchase her third selection ladies tops (the larger sizes) and transform them into more masculine cuts, since men’s fashion sells for a higher price point than women’s. These boys sell the tops on the street, saving up to return to school. Following the lifecycle of garments from each selection category begins to reveal a more complex economy of secondhand goods.
Enter the stylists and the designers. Not every Ghanaian finds the hunt for first selection delightful, and many elect to avoid Kantamanto as much as possible. Fueled by social media, dozens of entrepreneurial stylists travel to the market, locate the gems within the piles and piles of stuff, wash and iron their finds and present them as “thrift” or “vintage” via Instagram and Facebook. Internet consumers may pay four times the price that they would in Kantamanto, but they can do so from the comfort of their home. There are also stylists of a different type who pull looks from Kantamanto for photoshoots and music videos. Daniel “Mawuli” Quist is one such stylist who also operates a showroom called De FortyFive, full of glasses, hats, and clothing that he has upcycled with precision and compassion. Mawuli and other designers like him see potential in items that less astute shoppers pass over, creating one-of-a-kind works intended for one-of-a-kind humans.
Past the screenprinters lies several pens of goats and chickens. This is where we take a sharp right.
David’s stall is at the front of the “elders” market. This side, containing around 1,700 of the 5,000 stalls, boasts wider aisles and larger, more permanent stalls. David has made several upgrades to his retail environment, investing in a fan, shelves, a rolling gate, a full-length mirror, a soundsystem, a steamer, and a refrigerator stocked with chilled bottled water, the ultimate luxury.
David greets us with the customary Ghana handshake, hands us water, and invites us to take a seat. He is always worried about us obroni (foreigners, white people) getting dehydrated and overheated in his country. David is 29 years old, with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences.
“My family has been trading in secondhand goods since before I was born. My dad started trading in secondhand clothes when he was about 25 years. And my aunt introduced him to the secondhand business, and my aunt is dead. They were the pioneers.”
When a fire burned the market down in 2013, David stepped in to take over his dad’s business of selling men’s and ladies’ suits. After quickly plunging into debt, David began to study the market with the scientific precision he had learned in his university courses. He soon realized that, if he could raise the value of second selection goods by washing, mending, and altering them, he could optimize the purchase of each bale. He then strategically examined consumer behavior and learned how to create a luxury shopping experience for his customers. We call David by his market nickname, the Professor, because he is an expert in all facets of the secondhand clothing trade. He has even mastered the timing of his bale purchases to align with discount season in the Global North. What does not sell in a summer blow-out sale in the UK will be donated to clothing collectors and packed into bales, leading to a higher percentage of deadstock—first selection—per bale.
Of his craft, David says, “It’s a food chain. So, if you understand the food chain, you understand everything. The sun shines, the leaves start producing chlorophyll, photosynthesis, everything goes on. Then, they start bearing fruits and the leaves give off oxygen, and that is how everything starts. That’s the food chain. The same applies to clothing.”
While David has succeeded in gaming the market, and although he has gotten himself out of debt, he is exhausted with the fast pace of consumer demand, which he feels is fueled by the currency of the selfie and the need for validation via social media platforms. It doesn’t help that the business is grueling. David gets to work no later than 6 AM and doesn’t leave until after 5 PM, Monday through Saturday. He eats dinner early, reads the newspaper and as many books as he can get his hands on, listens to the BBC—something he does religiously both at night and in the morning—and is in bed by 9 PM. On Sunday, David washes second and third selection and picks up his order of mended suits from the family tailor.
David’s goal was to pay for his two sisters to finish university. With their studies nearly complete, David is preparing to wrap up the business and apply to grad school to research cancer treatments, hopefully in the USA.
Despite his admiration for American academia, David selIs suits exclusively from the UK. Generally, UK bales are considered the best quality across all product categories, whereas American and Canadian bales are considered the lowest quality and are thus the cheapest. But bales are exported by clothing collectors with headquarters all over the world—the Netherlands, Australia, Korea, Germany, and China, to name a few of the other key exporting countries we hear about in the market.
Walking through the importer side of Kantamanto Market, the global connections of the secondhand clothing trade are immediately clear. Shipping containers line the crowded streets waiting to be offloaded. Each container traces back to an exporter somewhere abroad. With a seemingly endless supply of donated clothes, exporters in the Global North sell container loads of clothing to Ghanaian importers as fast as the containers can be packed. Ghanaian importers, in turn, work with middlemen and retailers to offload individual bales fast enough to pay the exporters back for the containers that they often purchased on credit and in foreign currency. Importers express concerns that if they are unable to accept a container, they will lose their relationship with exporters abroad. This supply-driven cycle is based on quantity not quality, with each player passing on clothing to the next rung down the ladder and taking a cut of the pie in the process.
Each item of clothing carries a different value once it gets to Ghana. Abena’s garment of choice, ladies’ tops, is one of the toughest on which to turn a profit, because there is such an abundance of them and because silhouette, fabric, and finishing trends are so diverse that a bale from the same supplier might be entirely different from one week to the next, containing a lot or a little of what her customers want. David, on the other hand, is well positioned to succeed by selling men’s suits, a more limited, more uniform, and universally high-ticket item.
David and Abena sit at opposite sides of the spectrum. David is most likely to profit, while Abena is most likely to lose money and fall into debt.
This lost financial value also represents physical waste.
On average, 40 percent of each bale is not sold. In most cases, what is not sold is sent to the landfill. The dump-truck we saw in the morning was one of two trucks that the Accra Metropolitan Assembly uses to collect waste from Kantamanto each day that the market is open. These trucks take 70 metric tons, or 154,000 pounds, of clothing and textile waste to the landfill on a daily basis, an increase from 50 metric tons in 2017. What the AMA cannot pick up due to limited truck and landfill capacity is collected by informal garbage collectors and is illegally burned or dumped on unofficial landfills. At times, the clothing is dumped directly into the Gulf of Guinea.
Kantamanto’s vibrancy is dimmed by this never-ending accumulation of excess. As the market day draws to an end, piles and piles of unwanted clothing have filled the aisleways under our feet.
The name given to secondhand clothing in Ghana perfectly illustrates this reality. Obroni w’awu is an Akan term that translates to “dead white man’s clothes.” When secondhand clothing first arrived in Ghana decades ago, it was presumed that the previous owner had died. Why else would someone pass on their clothing? The very concept of excess was not understood. Today, the understanding of the term “dead white man's clothes” incorporates the knowledge that not all of the clothing comes from dead people. The concept of excess has taken on a new meaning.
Kantamanto and other secondhand clothing markets are not retail utopias where each item of clothing, each object rejected by the Global North, finds a user. While secondhand markets do present an opportunity for reuse, the lifecycle of an item of clothing does not necessarily continue. With the continued hyper-acceleration of production and consumption in the Global North, Kantamanto serves as a necessary extension of this fast-fashion economy.
Kantamanto is the outlet for our excess.
The story of dead white man’s clothes does not stop here.
Woven throughout Kantamanto are the kayayei, the backbone of the secondhand clothing trade. The kayayei (singular kayayo) are head porters, predominantly women, who transport the bales of clothing from importer to retailer, from retailer to storage, from retailer to retailer, from retailer to consumer, and so on. Kantamanto could not exist without the labor of the women and men working as kayayei, because there would be no other way of transporting the bales through the narrow and congested passageways of the market.
Asana is a kayayei. She is 18 years old. Her family is from a farming community near Tamale in the north of Ghana, where drought has lead to shrinking harvests. She came to Accra one year ago with the hope of earning enough money to feed herself and to save the few thousand dollars necessary to attend nursing school. She wants to be a nurse to help her community back home, some 300 miles away.
Asana carries a bale in the images captured at Osu Castle, where people were once locked up in dungeons for months at a time before passing through the “door of no return,” where the British Colonialists once administered the Gold Coast, where Kwame Nkrumah once signed Ghana’s independence documents. Weighing nearly her entire body weight, the bale of men’s T-shirts from the UK makes it impossible for Asana to stand still. The weight is crushing. On busy market days she might carry 10 of these bales for no less than half a mile, through the narrow, crowded aisleways. She will make at most $10 from these 10 journeys. Her money for the week. With the risk of injury, illness, robbery, and rape, she may never save enough to pay for nursing school.
As David says, “The kayayos are basically the slaves of the entire system...in Ghana a kayayo simply means someone who carries a load. Someone who carries a burden.”
At the end of the day, Asana walks through the aisles of Kantamanto as people sweep unwanted clothes into rice sacks to carry away to the dumps. Wiping sweat from her brow and slowly drinking a water sachet, she winds her way through the aisles and overflowing streets back to the crowded room that she shares with four other girls. Under a ceiling barely taller than their heads, the girls have one small fan and no windows. The putrid air is barely noticeable after a year of breathing it while she sleeps on the bare concrete floor. Thousands of kayayei like Asana live here, atop the dumping grounds of our waste. Clothing from Kantamanto is illegally—but openly—piled high, a mountain of the Anthropocene. Mixed with our smoldering clothes, laptops and televisions are mined for their metals by young men who melt off the plastic and rubber of computer chips and electrical wiring in open flames that seem to carry on for miles. This e-waste dump, which may be largest on our planet, is the environment in which Asana lives.
Accra is a city of transformation. Not far from the burning and illegal dumping, new air-conditioned malls seem to open on a monthly basis. Luxurious cars shuttle a growing elite between bank headquarters, hotels, government office buildings, and walled mansions filling in the landscape of the sprawling city.
Yet for Asana, the city of Accra is small. She knows the path from the room she shares to the market. And she knows the weight she bears.