Tag: clothing

Stepping out in style in harsh economic times

A pair of second-hand, suede, black, six-inch boots arranged on the pavement catches her eye as she walks to the nearby bus stop carrying her mid-month household shopping from the Tusky’s supermarket a few meters away. In the shopping bag she has a packet of baking flour, a kilogram of sugar, four packets of milk and four toilet rolls. She pauses to admire the shoes and the man, sensing an opportunity to make a sale, leaps up to serve her.

A Kenyan vendor sells second-hand clothes, locally known as 'mitumba', at an open-air market in Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)
A Kenyan vendor sells second-hand clothes, locally known as ‘mitumba’, at an open-air market in Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)

Ni size gani? [What size is it?]” she asks.

“Forty shillings,” the street hawker responds.

Kujaribu ni bure [Trying it on is free],” he says.

Before she can resist the hawker has reached out to help. He puts her shopping bags in a safe place and helps her put on the boots she has been admiring. It is a perfect fit.

Ni how much?” she asks as she walks a few paces to get a feel for the shoes.

“It’s 800 shillings ($9).”

“What? That’s so much,” she retorts.

Bei ni ya kuongea [The price is negotiable],” the hawker replies.

The haggling goes on for a while and she finally settles for a price that she can manage. This woman is a reflection of others in Nairobi who rely on second-hand clothing and shoes to ensure they look good despite the harsh economic times.

Escalating prices
The escalating price of commodities is straining the life of the average Kenyan, especially those living in the city, who are already struggling to survive.

Kenya’s GDP growth rate stood at 5.2% during the first quarter of 2013 and the unemployment rate in the country stands at an estimated 40%. The cost of living has also greatly increased. A litre of milk today costs about 90 shillings ($1). Ten years ago the same litre of milk cost about 50 shillings. Mortgages, car loans and food budgets are increasing and many are left with the bare minimum from their monthly salary to cater for expenses, like buying clothes and shoes, that are expected to go with one’s social image.

But at the thriving second-hand businesses, located in open-air markets and small stalls in town, one can haggle over the price of anything, from shoes and clothes of all types to undergarments and bags. The hawkers that sell these items stay open up much later than regular clothing shops. The more adventurous hawkers are known to come to the downtown streets of Nairobi with their wares at night, when the regular businesses have closed and the nightlife is just beginning.

This presents an opportunity for those who work late and do not have an opportunity to shop during the day. It also targets people who did not think they had a budget for clothes or those who suddenly find themselves desperately in need of an item of clothing.

I myself have benefitted from the convenience of a roadside hawker. On one occasion my supervisor sent me to a meeting across town. City traffic in Nairobi can turn a 10-minute walk into a half-hour commute by car, so taking a taxi would not have made sense. Instead I opted to walk there in my impractical high heels. That evening, as I was making the painful 30-minute walk to the bus stop, leaning heavily against a colleague, I came across a hawker selling shoes on the pavement.

There was only one pair of sandals among the many closed shoes and high heels on offer. Without waiting for the hawker to offer to help, I picked up my heels, asked him to pack them into a paper bag for me and slipped my feet into the sandals. I did not waste time haggling, as I desperately needed the sandals. But they were so cheap that I didn’t feel cheated – they cost just 250 shillings ($3).

A boon for women
Second-hand clothes and shoes have been a boon to Kenyan women looking for clothing at an affordable price. Retail shops charge high prices. A blouse at Mr Price, considered to be an upmarket shop in Kenya, may cost up to 2 000 shillings ($24). The same blouse could be had second-hand for 800 shillings ($9). If one is really good at haggling, the prices could be as low as 600 shillings ($7).

Some savvy shoppers have even found ways to capitalise on the demand for second-hand clothing. Twenty-something Akisa Mathenge has made a business out of second-hand clothes shopping. Her unique selection of the clothes from second-hand stalls has many people asking if she could be their personal stylist and buy them second-hand clothes for wear at the office, church or home.

“I really enjoy dressing people up. When I find a client who wants me to buy them second-hand clothes, my first question is always to find out what they like wearing. I also suggest changes to their wardrobe to style them up. When I see a customer happy then I feel fulfilled,” Mathenge adds.

Her service includes bringing the range of clothing that she’s selected, carried in large bags, to her clients homes. But this has become more difficult as her business has expanded. With business picking up, she’s now considering getting her own stall so she can stock more clothes. Even though her paycheck does not always come on the expected day, she is able to meet all her expenses through this side business.

As luxury goods like clothes and shoes becoming more expensive for ordinary Kenyans, the second-hand clothing business is set to thrive for a long time to come.

Mary Itumbi is a journalist based in Nairobi.

Is my skirt too short or too long?

As we walked down a street in Grahamstown recently after a long day of learning about the fundamentals of social accountability, I observed my companion tracking the women around us on campus with his eyes. They were flaunting carefully selected fashion-conscious outfits. Bountiful pear shapes were hugged by skinny jeans and stretchy colour-block dresses that swished to the rhythm of their gait. There really are few things more delightful than the sight of a woman flouncing about in an outfit that makes her glow with confidence.

“No wonder the rate of rape is so high in this country,” he said. Just like that, my bubble of enjoyment burst. My own invisible blanket of security shriveled in the cool, sunny air. Danger lurked everywhere and male menace strode right next to me, ruining a pleasant stroll. What had just happened?

A lot of ink has been spilled over the politics of hair for women of African descent. There are basic conventions to follow. Every morning as I wrestle my fierce afro into submission with the help of coconut oil and a Black Power metal-toothed comb, there is no confusion in my mind as to what it will communicate to the world at large. But when it comes to selecting an outfit, I find the social calculations harder to make. The fact that nudity is not an option is vexing enough. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations can give me conniptions.

Every day I face the gauntlet of choices about depilating and deodorising and re-odourising and taming my natural curves. Absolutely no detection of my menstrual cycle is allowed in public, hence a battery of products to manage the regular shedding of my uterus lining. Restrictive garments for the bits that move when left loose, and outer garments to conceal whichever parts of me are out of public favor. Shoes heightened to tilt my hips back and thrust my bra-shaped tits forward – often paired with items that, confusingly enough, help me maintain the requisite amount of sexual aloofness. We haven’t even talked accessories yet.

And woe betide me if I get the balance wrong. If my skirt is too short for the social gathering it will say the wrong things about my sexual mores, and if it is too long it will still say the wrong things about my sexual mores. How long a hem does a girl need to attract the attentions of the right kind of guy? Is it three-inch heels for “I’m ready to settle down in a spiritual union if you are” and nine-inch heels for “bring the whiskey, I’ve got the handcuffs and we can take turns playing the naughty police officer”? Or is it other way around? I forget.

But most importantly: what’s the rape signal, exactly? Because I would hate to send a “please attack me, traumatise me, and destroy a part of my soul” signal by mistake when I only meant to say “it’s a little hot today”. Maybe I should have asked my companion on our walk. The weight of male irresponsibility that women’s garments are made to bear is heinous, and it is depressing how the threat of sexual violence is used to enforce the rather restrictive concept of female respectability.

A protester at a Slut Walk march held on September 24 2011 in Johannesburg. The Slut Walk initiative serves to protest against the perception that the way a woman dresses can justify rape and sexual violence. (Gallo)
A protester at a Slut Walk march held on September 24 2011 in Johannesburg. The Slut Walk initiative serves to protest against the perception that the way a woman dresses can justify rape and sexual violence. (Gallo)

Since I choose to believe that the roots of this “respectability” business are firmly planted in patriarchal fears of the sacred feminine, among other things, I put some effort into avoiding its strictures. My home, Dar-es-Salaam, is cosmopolitan, the beneficiary of centuries of cultural intercourse, and it shows in the range of ways residents choose to dress. There is plenty of secular space to work in, even if we have to make allowances for our Muslim sensibility and our Bantu Christian conservatism.

The default rule in the performance of respectability is that the more you cover, the higher you score. In a city where the humidity rarely drops below sticky and the heat ranges between miserable and suffocating, one must employ a little sense when selecting a daily outfit. It can be hard not to resent the shirtless men cooling off their skin whenever they please, but since most of them work in physically demanding jobs there are visual compensations.

Years of navigating and negotiating Dar’s particular combination of expectations has taught me that it comes down to the nuances of a given environment or, more specifically, the weight that is accorded to the male gaze, even in women-only spaces. Not enough ink has been spilled over the politics of dress for women of African descent, at least none that avoids the profit-seeking of the fashion industry on one hand and the sexists on the other. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations might be challenging, but I can’t help but be fascinated by the political aspect of it.

There are benefits to mastery, the primary one being physical safety. I like to think that I have become a seasoned politician in this arena. Although a nudity-embracing society remains the unattainable ideal, I do enjoy a wardrobe that includes neck-to-feet gowns, plunging necklines and a little red string bikini that I am rather fond of – all without incident so far. For the most part all is well with the world except for those times when I stray outside the familiar, and a handy chauvinist reminds me that the lines of propriety have shifted, giving me the horrors in pretty little Grahamstown.

Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media from Tanzania, working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at mikochenireport.blogspot.com. Connect with her on Twitter.