Project Uganda: Blood tears in Acholi Land

Second-hand clothes cripple textile industry

By Travis and Kaitlin Curtice

Second-hand clothes, such as this Hello Kitty t-shirt,
have virtually eliminated the Ugandan textile industry.

I wanted a beautiful, traditional-print skirt from Uganda, yet every street was filled with newly organized, used clothing: used shoes, used shirts, used skirts and pants. Years ago someone decided to help the impoverished of the world by donating used clothing in order to boost economy. Their decision not only backfired, but destroyed huge pieces of the fabric that make up a unique society: its patterns in clothing. Ugandan women now walk the streets in old American trends, fresh off the outside market nearby.

As we were taking a ride on a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) to eat dinner, we noticed our driver had on a KU jacket. Travis pointed out the symbol to the driver, and he smiled and said, “I don’t know them, I just wear the jacket.”

The crisis of Uganda’s textile industry is similar to that of Zambia’s. Mark O’Donnell of the Zambian Manufacturers Association said, “Every single clothing industry went out of business; we do not have a clothing industry left in the country because the secondhand clothes are coming in.” Used clothing’s affect in Uganda is evident by the open markets that sell only used American clothing such as shoes, T-shirts, or pants for Ugandan prices. Kids wearing Nike shoes with a Bart Simpson T-shirt; little girls in Tweety Bird, their smiles bright; a child in a village with Hello Kitty stamped across her chest. In the busy streets of cities like Gulu, however, there are the minority of women who wear traditional prints, made from one of the few sewing shops found deep in the market.

As I buried myself deep among these stores, I realized that finding a place to have a simple skirt made was a struggle. Even patterns that resembled authentic African prints turned out to be secondhand pieces. The authentic shops that I did pass by targeted me a great deal; the beautiful, traditional prints that were originally made for this people are now products to be peddled to the tourists coming through the area.

Though Uganda has been affected by the flood of used clothing, they are making threads forward. Uganda is showing its progress in creating new textile factories to profit from the United States in a new way. One BBC article states, “The Sri-Lankan owned Tristar textile factory in Kampala employs over 1,000 girls drawn from every corner of Uganda.”

Instead of relying on the clothing brought from places such as Salvation Army in the United States, Uganda’s officials are creating jobs for trade, allowing money to come in a way that will boost Uganda’s economy. Girls can make a pair of shorts and have money returned, and their job is secured by the product they are creating. This step forward in Uganda is a clear sign of positive change; the loss of traditional textile prints, however, will always remain an injustice to the indigenous Ugandan society. Yet somewhere, hidden in the ally, behind tourist-packed stands, lies the skirt, hangs the dress, in perfect East African print.