Category: General

How second-hand clothing donations are creating a dilemma for Kenya

Traders work in Gikomba Market on July 10 2014 in Nairobi. Locally known as "Mitumba", second-hand clothes trade has developed from mainly international charitable donations to become a bustling business sector. (Pic: AFP)
Traders work in Gikomba market on July 10 2014 in Nairobi. Locally known as “Mitumba”, second-hand clothes trade has developed from mainly international charitable donations to become a bustling business sector. (Pic: AFP)

When a fire razed East Africa’s biggest second-hand clothes market in Nairobi last week, the deputy president, William Ruto, rushed to the scene to assure traders that the government would do everything to help them to rebuild their destroyed stalls.

But perhaps a more important question Ruto should have answered is whether Gikomba market will be in business a year from now if a proposed ban on the importation of second-hand clothes into east Africa is approved.

In January, east African head of states suggested that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania should stop importing used clothes in an effort to revive the local textile industry.

Kenya alone imports around 100 000 tonnes of second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories a year – many of which were originally donated to charity shops in the west. According to Oxfam, more than 70% of the clothes donated globally end up in Africa.

“The items [charity] shops fail to sell or which they reject are considered for resale elsewhere,” says Ian Falkingham, who manages an Oxfam-owned outlet in Senegal, Frip Ethique. “Items which are in good condition and suitable for warmer climates are exported to Africa.”

This second-hand clothes chain sees, for example, a Forever 21 dress once worn by a young woman in London find its way into the wardrobe of a university student in Kenya. University of Oxford sweatshirts, I love London T-shirts, hoodies emblazoned with the star spangled banner or the Union Jack – and even the Confederate flag – are common wear for people who have never set foot in the UK or the United States.

But if the ban goes through, Kenyans will be compelled to buy locally produced clothes, giving textile manufacturers a chance to reclaim the market they lost to cheap imports from abroad.

Death of an industry

The decline of Kenya’s textile industry dates back to the early 1980s, when market liberalisation policies spearheaded by the World Bank opened up the local economy to second-hand clothes. Previously, they had been distributed for free among the poor.

But the superior quality and originality of the clothes soon caught the eye of the young urban population, creating a demand that led to the collapse of many of Kenya’s once robust textile companies, among them Rift Valley Textiles (Rivertex) and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi).

According to local media reports, 500 000 people were employed in the textile industry in the 1980s. Today, that number has fallen by more than 96% to around 20 000.

Banning the importation of used clothes is the government’s latest effort to save an industry that is all but extinguished – and is intended to try to recover some of those lost jobs.

But, paradoxically, a ban could devastate another group of Kenyans who depend on the second-hand clothes trade to make a living.

William Ng’ong’a, who sells used clothes at Gikomba, is aware of the possible ruling that could destroy the business his family has spent the past two decades building. “I am in this business with my parents, I joined them 10 years ago just after finishing university. It’s the only work I know,” he says.

Ng’ong’a says the business imports an average of two containers of clothes a month, for which they pay £16,700 in tax. The containers are offloaded from ships at the port town of Mombasa from where they are transported by road to Gikomba market.

A glorious, chaotic ecosystem

Gikomba is the ground zero of second-hand clothes in Kenya, and it’s from here that merchandise is redistributed to retailers all over the country.

Unapologetic for its mess of noise, dust and a confusing maze of timber, iron sheets and cardboard stalls, clothes hang from the stalls in a wild cacophony of colour and design.

If the clothes are not on hangers, they are bundled into giant heaps which the sellers invite buyers to burrow into to find what they are looking for. Often, the best dresses or blouses are buried at the bottom of the pile.

Buyers and sellers jostle for space in the cramped, often muddy, lanes, where the set price of goods is usually so low that it is ridiculous to bargain for anything cheaper. Even so, the more industrious sellers can be heard shouting themselves hoarse, advertising bargains designed to lure even the most reluctant of buyers.

Gikomba pulses with a spirit borne of genuine camaraderie: conversation and laughter punctuate the exchanges between the buyers and sellers.

It is a glorious, chaotic ecosystem that has survived catastrophe after catastrophe, including a terror attack in May last year that killed 12 people and more fires than the traders can count.

Ng’ong’a says he directly employs 15 people, most of whom are casual labourers, and is afraid that they might all be left without a source of income if the East Africa Community goes ahead with the ban.

“I have a degree in commerce which I have never used, but I might be forced to fall back on it if the ban goes through. I am not particularly excited to have to join the overcrowded job market and become a paper pusher because I really love this job,” he says.

And paid employment of another kind is unlikely to match his current earnings: Ng’ong’a reveals that each container imported at £38 574 brings in a profit of over 90%.

Charles Kuria’s store is one floor above Ng’ong’a’s. It is bigger, and filled floor to ceiling with bales of clothes.

Kuria has had this store for almost two years, but he has been in the businessmuch longer, starting from the bottom as a hawker selling a few pieces on the streets to a big time wholesaler who now only sells in bales to retailers.

He imports his stock directly from the UK, the US, Canada and Belgium.

Although Kuria is reluctant to discuss his profit margins, he admits to living a comfortable life where money has ceased to be a worry. His is a business that has a sizeable staff, with four people employed permanently and up to 20 casuals each time new stock comes in.

He says the real casualties of a ban would be the casual workers who depend on odd jobs to earn a living.

“If these people are deprived of an opportunity to make honest wages, they might turn to crime and contribute to making Nairobi an unsafe city,” says Kuria.

Striking a balance

Former Kenya Association of Manufacturers boss Betty Maina is cognisant of the risk that comes with cutting off the second-hand clothes business without a fall back plan for the hundreds of thousands it employs.

In an article for a local media company, Maina says that it is possible to grow the local textile industry without taking jobs from the people who need them the most.

“Granted, the ‘mitumba’ sector is a source of employment and many people earn their livelihood from the business. Measures that would shut down the flourishing trade at a go would not be very welcome.

“But why not streamline activities in the sector in such a way that the local textile industry is able to reap the benefits of providing quality products at an affordable price and at the same time providing thousands of jobs directly and millions more in downstream activities?” she asks.

The thousands involved in the second hand clothes trade will know their fate once the East Africa leaders meet for the November summit, during which the issue is expected to come up.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen how the government will walk the tightrope of reviving the local textile industry without annihilating Gikomba – and the people that thrive on it.

Jacqueline Kubania for the Guardian Africa Network

Sisters fight to save ancient African language from extinction

The 11 official languages of South Africa on display at the Constitutional Court. (Pic: Flickr)
The 11 official languages of South Africa on display at the Constitutional Court. (Pic: Flickr)

A 95-year-old woman is helping a last ditch effort to preserve an ancient African language before it goes extinct.

Hanna Koper and her two sisters are thought to be the last remaining speakers of the San language N|uu, rated as critically endangered by Unesco . The San, also known as “bushmen”, were the first hunter-gatherers in southern Africa.

N|uu, which has 112 distinct sounds, was passed on orally down the generations but never written down. Now Koper and her siblings have worked with linguists to design alphabet charts with consonants, vowels and 45 different “clicks” that are typical of San languages, as well as rules of spelling and grammar.

Matthias Brenzinger, director of the Centre for African Language Diversity at the University of Cape Town , who is working on the project with British academic Sheena Shah, said: “It’s the most indigenous language of southern Africa.”

N|uu and related languages were spoken in most parts of southern Africa, he added, but were wiped out by white settlers, sometimes with the support of locals. “Very often they kept the young girls, but they killed all the men. Genocide is the major reason for these languages in southern Africa to be extinct now, and then forced assimilation. Farmers were taking their land so there was no subsistence for them any more.”

Brezinger has overseen the teaching of N|uu at a local school, where pupils learn basics such as greetings, body parts, animal names and short sentences. One teenager girl in particular is showing huge promise in the language but “at one stage there will be no fluent speaker any more”, he said.

That does not mean N|uu will necessarily be doomed to the archives, however. “With these languages, you never know,” said Brezinger. “Hawaiian was extinct basically, and then there was a movement 35 years ago and you have 2 000 mother tongue speakers of Hawaiian.

“This is why it’s very important now for us to record as much as possible with the speakers so we have material, spoken language on video tape and so on.”

N|uu has one of the biggest speech sound inventories in the world, he added, including more than 45 click phonemes, 30 non-click consonants and 37 vowels. “Language is the most important cultural asset, so if you lose your langage, you lose your culture. In Canada there is a clear link between those indigenous people who lose their language and suicide rates. In this globalised world, local identity is essential,” Brezinger.

Koper, who lives near Upington in Northern Cape province, told the Sunday Times newspaper that when she was a girl in the days of white minority rule, she and her siblings were told their language was ugly. “We were told not to make noise, and the baas [a Dutch word for supervisor] would shout at us if we spoke the language because they believed we were gossiping,” she was quoted as saying.

“This is my language. This is my bread. This is my milk. I didn’t learn it, but I ate it and this is how it is my language.”

Koper’s sister Katrina Esau, 82, who has received an award from President Jacob Zuma for her work to preserve San language and culture , added: “Other people have their own languages. Why must my language be allowed to die? It must go on. As long as there are people, the language must go on.”

David Smith for the Guardian 

Coup or no coup, here are 8 things you should know about Burundi

People celebrate in the streets of Bujumbura on May 13 2015 following the radio announcement that President Nkurunziza was overthrown. (Pic: AFP)
People celebrate in the streets of Bujumbura on May 13 2015 following the radio announcement that President Nkurunziza was overthrown. (Pic: AFP)

A top Burundian general launched a coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza on Wednesday, bringing to a head weeks of violent protests against the president’s bid to stand for a third term.

General Godefroid Niyombare, a powerful former intelligence chief who was sacked earlier in the year, announced via a private radio station that the president had been overthrown hours after he left for neighbouring Tanzania for talks with regional leaders.

The presidency, however, said in a brief message on Twitter that the coup had “failed”. Pro-Nkurunziza troops were still in control of key institutions including the presidential palace and state broadcaster, witnesses said, and fired warning shots to stop demonstrators from marching on the state television and radio building.

Over 20 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party nominated Nkurunziza to stand for re-election in June 26 polls. The clashes between security forces and demonstrators have raised fears of a return to widespread violence in Burundi, which is still recovering from a brutal 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and which left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

Whichever way the crisis ends, there are a couple of things worth knowing about Burundi:

1. It’s becoming a good place to set up a business! Since 2012, it has been possible to register a new business in the country in one day, and for less than $30. The country has made major gains on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking and is now regarded as one of the world’s star economic reformers. This year it placed 140th, from 157th in the 2013 ranking. It has notably jumped 72 places in the ease of registering property, and also made gains in the trading across borders indicator.

2. Urban beaches. Lonely Planet says that Bujumbura’s Lake Tanganyika beaches are some of the best urban beaches of any landlocked country in Africa.The stretch of beach that lies about 5km northwest of the capital is the most beautiful and used to be known as Plage des Cocotiers (Coconut Beach).

Bujumbura beach. (Pic: Flickr / Michael Foley)

3. Burundi was the first country, along with Sierra Leone, to be put on the agenda of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. It was stablished in 2006, to ensure that countries once ravaged by war do not relapse into bloodshed. Burundi has seen 40 years of armed violence and civil war since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962. The conflicts, rooted in political and historical tensions between the ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority populations, have killed more than 300,000 people.

4. The country is developing a Bujumbura City Master Plan to counter population growth and the attendant pressure on public utilities. Its partners on the project, that would bring in order to a cluttered environment, include the United Nations Development Program, and Singapore. The country is also looking to link the capital city to Kenya’s coastal town of Mombasa to make it easier to trade, using a 1,545km corridor.

5. Burundi was the first country in the East African Community to issue e-Passports.  The country introduced the new biometric passport in March 2011.

6. Burundi is one of the most youthful countries in the world. In 2014, with an estimated 45.7% of the population under the age of 15, Burundi comes in 7th in world rankings.

Children play football in Bujumbura on March 19 2015. (Pic: AFP)
Children play football in Bujumbura on March 19 2015. (Pic: AFP)

7. Even though it’s a landlocked country, fishing is a very important sector representing about 1% of the GDP. Fisheries in Burundi are dominated by Lake Tanganyika which it shares with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zambia. The waters under the jurisdiction of Burundi make up about 8% of the lake and are restricted to the northern coastline.

8. Burundi is one of the most attractive African markets for telecoms investors. Mobile penetration is at around 33% (mid-2014), standing at only about half the regional average – lots of room to grow.

This post was first published on MG Africa. 

One year on, jailed Ethiopian bloggers are still awaiting trial

(Pic: Flickr / OER Africa )
(Pic: Flickr / OER Africa )

In 2012, nine Ethiopian men and women came together to create a blogging collective known as Zone 9. In an autocratic country rife with political corruption and where state-run media is utterly dominant, this was a bold move.

Writing in both English and Amharic, the bloggers covered some of the country’s most pressing social and economic issues, giving life to stories all but absent from local media.

Zone 9 believed it was imperative to speak publicly about the national constitution, which claims to protect freedom of expression and the right of assembly, and which demands elections every five years. The bloggers thought that if citizens could hold their government accountable through a free press, the country’s civic fabric could become stronger. Citizens could have some say in how the country was run.

On April 25 2014, the writers were taken from their homes and detained by police. After 11 weeks behind bars, they were charged under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws.

Nothing new
Ethiopia currently ranks fourth on a list of the world’s most censored countries, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report released [last] week.

In the run-up to elections in May, the report found that the government had filed lawsuits accusing six publications of “encouraging terrorism”, forcing 16 journalists to flee into exile, while the sole internet provider, Ethio Telecom, stand accused of routinely suspending critical news websites.

This is nothing new: over the last 24 years the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has fine-tuned its social and political control, whilst simultaneously being credited by western governments for transforming the once poverty-stricken country into a rising, dynamic and stable one.

They weren’t the first. A series of Ethiopia’s successive and diametrically opposed regimes – from the military regime under Mengistu Haile Mariam (ousted in 1991) and the imperial rule under Haile Selassie before him – have had one thing in common: all have jailed and killed opposition activists, journalists and dissidents.

The Zone 9 name is in part inspired by this history. Kality, a prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, is divided into eight different zones, and it’s the last which has gained infamy – zone eight – home to journalists, human rights activists and dissidents.

Endalk Chala, one of the three Zone 9ers who remains free today, said that when the group formed “we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone 9.”

The Ethiopian government accuses the bloggers of attempting to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; by violence, threats, or conspiracy”.

The bloggers are expected to face trial later this year. If convicted, all of them face a minimum of eight years in prison.

Ethiopia is the beneficiary of significant flows of foreign military and humanitarian aid, largely intended to bolster and maintain the country as a security stronghold in the Horn of Africa, where levels of ethnic tension, corruption and crime are high.

With a genuine terror threat emanating from neighbouring Somalia, the government has developed sweeping anti-terrorism laws with the blessing of the international governments. But these laws are frequently used to suppress any hint of dissent within its own population.

From late 2005 until 2012 there were no major public demonstrations from the political opposition. There was also little critique: Ethiopia does not have a single independent daily newspaper, only a handful of state-sanctioned FM radio stations, and one government television station.

After the 2005 national elections, the regime banned opposition groups and labour unions, including religious groups, and imposed state control over their websites.

After the following 2010 election, where the government claimed to have won 99.9% of seats in parliament, the regime took control of all of the country’s major institutions including the courts, the media, mosques, churches, schools and universities. By 2012, the internet became the sole option for public communications and discourse.

‘Freedom of expression is considered immoral’

In 2013 amidst a climate of mounting intimidation and surveillance the Zone 9ers let their blog go quiet for six months.

They were unnerved by the treatment of award-winning journalists such as Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Wubeshet Taye who had been, along with nine others, sentenced to between eight and 18 years in prison.

All had written columns criticising the anti-terrorism laws, the very same legislation they were later charged with violating.

But in 2014 the bloggers decided they could not remain quiet any longer. They published a letter explaining their silence.

“Last time we published a piece on our collective blog was about six months ago,” they wrote. “We know that Ethiopia is a country where freedom of expression is effectively repressed … Our rulers consider freedom of expression as something immoral.”

“When we became quiet, we thought we would be at least forgotten.” But they weren’t.

On April 25, just a week after posting the letter on Facebook, six members of the blogging team and three journalists apparently “affiliated” with them were arrested.

One year on they still await trial. The charge sheet accuses the bloggers of having received training in communication encryption in Security-in-a-Box – a digital security toolkit to help human rights groups protect themselves from surveillance, which is widely available online.

It also highlights their efforts in organising social media campaigns to engage more Ethiopians in conversations about human rights and national law.

In a letter about his experiences in prison and his hopes for the future, imprisoned blogger Natnael Feleke recently wrote: “To be honest, how much time I will be spending in prison is not the most pressing issue on my mind right now. Rather, I am worried about what will happen unless the international community assumes a firm stance on Ethiopia, demands progress with democratisation, and halts the millions of dollars pouring the regime’s way.”

“But ultimately,” Feleke writes, ‘it is the willingness to suffer and sacrifice [for our cause]’, in the words of Nelson Mandela, that will determine our fate.”

Ellery Roberts Biddle and Endalk Chala for Global Voices, in collaboration with the Guardian Africa network

Ethio-jazz: Burned to the ground but the beat goes on

Misale Legesse, an Ethiopian jazz drummer,shows the damage from a fire that ripped through Jazzamba jazz club, a milestone for Ethio-jazz in Addis Ababa, on February 16 2015. (Pic: AFP)
Misale Legesse, an Ethiopian jazz drummer,shows the damage from a fire that ripped through Jazzamba jazz club, a milestone for Ethio-jazz in Addis Ababa. (Pic: AFP)

Heaps of twisted iron, piles of ash and a charred microphone are all that remains of Jazzamba, the iconic Addis Ababa nightclub that revived Ethiopian jazz after it all but disappeared under communist rule.

The fire that destroyed the venue in January has left Ethiopia’s vibrant and growing jazz scene in disarray.

“I still do not believe it,” said musician Misale Legesse, a regular performer at the wood-pannelled club inside the Taitu Hotel.

The century-old hotel, one of the most historic buildings in the city, gained fame as the setting for Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 satirical novel about foreign correspondents Scoop .

But the Jazzamba bar inside brought prestige of another sort as it fostered a resurgence of the Horn of Africa’s unique jazz style – a genre created in the 1960s by music legend Mulatu Astatke, who fused jazz with traditional Ethiopian music.

“For me, it was not just a club, it was my school, where I learnt everything and played with the greatest,” Misale said.

Three nights a week, the young musician would play with the big names of Ethio-jazz, such as Alemayehu Eshete or Bahta Gebrehiwot.

Resurgence after military rule

Jazzamba only opened its doors four years ago but swiftly became the capital’s landmark jazz club, run and managed entirely by the musicians themselves.

“Musicians from all walks of life came to play with each other, we had up to 300 or 400 people huddled in the room, and that really helped create a movement,” said Henok Temesgen, a bassist and one of the founders of the club.

Then the accident happened, a blaze officially ruled accidental due to “electrical overload” and confined mainly to the jazz club.

While the fire came as a shock, Ethiopia’s jazz musicians have weathered adversity in the past. They survived decades of suppression under military rule and show no sign of slowing down now.

Jazzamba also played a key role in the international rediscovery of the Ethio-jazz genre, forgotten by many during the hardline communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose 17-year rule of terror ended when he was ousted in 1991.

During Mengistu’s rule – including the “Red Terror” purges in which tens of thousands were executed – Ethiopia’s music scene all but died.

The clubs closed and many musicians fled into exile.

“Apart from songs in praise of the regime and some nightclubs, there was nothing going on,” said Henok.

Iconic club, full of history

It was not until the late 1990s that the Ethiopian jazz scene started getting back on its feet.

“People no longer had the habit of listening to instrumental music, it was necessary to have a live singer,” Henok said. “Today, thanks to radio stations and clubs such as Jazzamba, the public is much more open to improvisation and experimental music.”

Jazzamba was the first club in Addis Ababa to offer concerts every evening and to promote jazz as more than background music.

Since then, interest in Ethio-jazz – with its distinctly un-Western scale – has grown.

“The Ethiopian music scene is very dynamic,” said Girum Mezmur co-founder of Jazzamba. “The local public is interested more in Ethio-jazz and traditional music, and more and more people came to the concerts.”

Since the fire, musicians have taken refuge at Mama’s Kitchen, a new restaurant in town that offers several concerts a week and aims to become a centre of the Addis music scene.

The Coffee House, one of Addis’ earliest jazz clubs, has also just reopened after being closed for years.

Convinced that Ethio-jazz has a bright future, Girum and Henok founded a music school near the capital three years ago, so far teaching some 70 students.

Income from Jazzamba paid for the school, but with the venue gone Ethiopian wine producer Awash has stepped in to fund the school for a year.

“We lost an iconic club in a place full of history, it’s true, but the music scene in Addis is not limited to Jazzamba,” Girum said.

“I am very optimistic about the development of Ethiopian music.”