Ugandans hunt for bargains from castoffs Fashion: Third World people dress like new in secondhand clothing and shoes from the United States.

September 28, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KAMPALA, Uganda -- A lot of prodding and peeking is going on as Milly Nalwoga tries to decide whether she will get her money's worth out of the stitched-up sack she is examining.

It contains secondhand shoes, consigned to charity in the United States months ago and shipped to Third World consumers here as today's hottest market bargains. But the importer, anxious to avoid chaos in a warehouse crowded with buyers, won't allow the bags to be opened.

First, Nalwoga pokes a small hole in the top of the sack with her finger. Then, she bends down and peers inside trying to assess the contents. Next, she puts the sack on its side, massaging it to get an idea of the styles and number of shoes. Finally, she shakes it to rearrange the shoes before poking another hole and looking into the bottom of the sack.

"You can check inside. You can see the shoes. We want shoes that have no damage," she says.

Nalwoga, 30, doesn't want high heels because of the rough country roads and potholed city sidewalks. She doesn't want children's shoes because they have little value here, where children frequently go barefoot. She is after comfortable footwear for men and women that she can sell for a few dollars' profit in the local market.

She quickly rejects the first sack, observing: "These are men's shoes, poor quality, very old."

An hour -- and six more sacks -- later, she has found what she wants.

She pays $80 dollars for the 50-pound sack containing, she estimates, about 45 pairs of good shoes, which she hopes to sell along the road for up to $100. If the shoes were exceptional, she says, she might pay $130 and be able to sell them for as much as $320.

"We can get a profit," she says, "but sometimes we get a loss."

And so another stage has been completed in the free-market process that brings America's cast-off -- but not worthless -- shoes and clothes thousands of miles away. Here old clothes find proud, new owners in this impoverished, equatorial land of 14 million on the shore of Lake Victoria.

It is a scene repeated daily in warehouses throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, as the needs of the Third World poor are met by the largess of the wealthier First World -- at a price.

"They can't afford to buy new," says Noorali Karmali, an importer here who ships secondhand clothes from New York, Houston and Los Angeles. "And besides, the secondhand things are often better quality than new stuff here. You can get Polo shirts. You buy them for $50 in America. Here, you buy them secondhand for $5."

In the dust bowl of central Kampala's Owino Market, a maze of alleyways festooned with a colorful display of international seconds, Kalema Moses is busy unpacking a bale of women's skirts, shipped here from the United States through the Kenyan port of Mombasa. He is not happy. Among the items, he finds shorts and mini-skirts, too immodest for most Ugandan women to wear.

"These shouldn't be in here," he complains. "My customers want long skirts. They don't want short skirts."

They won't buy white clothes, either, because they show the dirt, and he unhappily spots white skirts deep inside the bundle.

Already, Mpanga Robinah, 35, a driver's wife and mother of five, is rummaging among the skirts as Moses continues to unpack them, scattering them at his feet.

In a country with a per capita income of $220 a year, Robinah and others need every bargain they can find. A floral pattern catches her eye. She holds the skirt up to her waist.

"This one is nice, long," she says, agreeing to pay $6 for it. "This one is for me. This is Uganda. We put on long skirts. Only young girls wear short skirts."

Richard Mwebe, 18, a student at the Nyenga Seminary, is looking for a pair of black trousers as part of his school uniform. He has come to the stall of Mayima Peterson, in the Shaliyako Market, another bargain hunter's paradise crammed from roof to ceiling with every imaginable garment.

He gets his trousers for $5. New, they would cost him $25. He would like a white shirt, but he has no cash left.

"These days people are very poor. They can't afford the money," says Bernadette Mukasa, who gave up a librarian's job 12 years ago to open a stall selling secondhand bathroom and bedroom carpets and drapes. "We used to have a lot of customers. It was a very beautiful scene. Now very few customers come. There is no money."

She has just bought a bale of used bathroom rugs for $165, hoping to clear $20 profit, although sometimes she makes only $8 on a consignment. It is still more than she earned in the library.

She prefers deliveries from the Netherlands, France and Germany because of their quality, and she says that U.S. secondhand goods are frequently "very old."

"Sometimes we tell them where the clothes come from, but they can tell anyway," says importer Karmali, who runs K. B. Enterprises Ltd. on Nakivubo Road.

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