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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 11:09 GMT
The clothes line
By Jolyon Jenkins
BBC producer, The Clothes Line

Clothes shop
Only a few of the clothes we give away end up on our High Streets

Only a small proportion of the clothes that go to charity shops will be put on sale in this country. Most of them are bought by rag traders and sent to Africa where they are resold. So who wins from the arrangement?

In a dusty warehouse off the sprawling Soweto market in Lusaka, Zambia's capital, Christine Mwinge is trying to come to a decision.

She's a market trader, specialising in women's jackets, and she needs to restock. A warehouse assistant has dragged two tightly wrapped 45 kilogram bales of jackets from the stores for her to inspect.

She's only allowed to choose between these two, no more. But she's not allowed to open more than a tiny corner of the bales to see exactly what's inside them.

"It's a gamble, but sometimes I make jackpot," she says. Suddenly she spots something inside one of the bales. "This one I get," she announces firmly.

Charity bins

The bales Christine is pursuing do not contain new jackets. They are second-hand, the cast-offs from the people of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, UK - 5,000 miles away from the Zambian capital. A few weeks earlier they would have been sorted in a factory in the East Midlands town, owned by textile exporters Savannah Rags.

Rags to riches, and then on to Africa's street markets

The British are no longer very keen on wearing second-hand clothes and so most of the garments they donate to charity shops never get put on sale at home. Instead, they are sold on to rag traders like Savannah Rags.

Sometimes the charities never even see the clothes, they simply sell the rag traders the right to put the charity's name and logo on the clothes recycling bins in supermarket car parks - but the bins actually belong to the traders.

Savannah Rags is owned by a Zambian businessman. "It is for the needy of Africa. We look at ourselves as Africans and the local Africans' needs are our needs," says one of his UK managers, also a Zambian.

The company's accounts for 2004 show the business was healthy enough for the three directors to receive 100,000 each.

Back at Soweto market, Christine's son carries the heavy bale on his head half a mile to her stall, where she opens it.

You British also have families, but you sacrifice sending these things to Africa
Cephas Mwinge, voicing a common misconception
Quickly she sorts through the goods, putting them into a first class and second class pile. It's the moment of truth, when she knows whether her 40 investment will pay off, whether she has hit the jackpot, or bought a load of tat.

She tries to explain her accounting system, a complicated system of profit, stock, cash flow and the balance between the first and second class piles. But soon she spots the garment that made her buy it: a red, cotton jacket.

"I like the quality of this," she says. "I can put on a black skirt and put this one on top and match it, and I look nice."


The pile of second class jackets is bigger than the first class, but if Christine is dismayed, she doesn't show it. A crowd of women falls on Christine's pile of jackets. In Zambia, the second-hand clothes are known as "salaula", a Bemba word meaning "to rummage through a pile", and a lot of rummaging goes on now.

A Soweto market
Salaula stalls at a Soweto market
Within moments Christine has sold a little black number to journalist Freda Mkuka Phiri for 70p. "I like it because black can mix with anything," she says.

Back at Freda's house virtually everything in her and her husband, Cephas, own is salaula. "In this house we depend on salaula, without it we would be walking naked," she says.

With the rise in Aids in Africa there are many orphans in Zambia and Freda and Cephas are responsible for an extended family of 17, besides their own children. Only with salaula do the household sums begin to add up.

There is much to be said for salaula. It's affordable yet durable. It clothes everyone from cabinet ministers to street dwellers. The trade provides employment for the vast majority of Zambians who have no hope of a "proper" job in the collapsed Zambian economy. It provides an outlet for Zambian sartorial creativity.

Industry woes

And yet there are criticisms too. Some feel that by wearing western cast-offs, Zambians are demeaning themselves. And many believe the flood of second-hand clothes has helped destroy Zambia's own garment industry - an argument that is hotly contested.

Salaula trader Valerio Kamlaoewe
Traders pay around 40 for bales
The Zambian Government has looked at the profits being made by the importers and has slapped a heavy, and highly unpopular, duty on salaula. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that, just as most British people have little idea what happens to their old clothes, Zambians themselves have no real conception of where salaula comes from.

Freda says, as a Christian, she had no fears that the clothes were haunted by spirits. She was reflecting a common misconception that garments this good must have belonged to dead people - nothing else would explain why they had been discarded.

Her husband, Cephas, says he is grateful to the British. "You brothers on the other side, you also have families, but you sacrifice sending these things to Africa".

This idea, that we are giving up our own clothes to help Africans, is widespread. When a seller of second-hand shoes, Valerio Kamlaoewe, is told the truth - that the shoes are thrown out as rubbish - he is visibly shocked.

He thinks a minute, then rallies and says: "Pile them up and give them to us in Africa and we will be surviving on them."

The Clothes Line will be broadcast on Tuesday 21 March at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

Add your comments using the form below.

It looks like it's time for me to cut out the middle man and find a charity that'll send clothes direct. Having two growing children means that we have to get rid of good clothes on a regular basis.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

As someone living in Nottingham who's just donated a pile of clothes to charity this makes interesting reading. As long as the charity makes some money, the african trader makes some money and the person who ends up with my old jeans is happy I don't see any problem with this. Its nice to know how the system works though.
Peter, Nottingham

I am actually shocked by the fact that people are making money out of charity.
Edith, London

I do not give my clothes to charity so that people in the Third World have to pay to get them but so they can get them free and either sell them or wear them. I am appalled.
Katy Charles, London/England

There is a similar industry in the philippines. It is called "ukay-ukay" (rummage) which is jokingly called "UK" for short. So when someone asks where you got your outfit... one just answers "UK".
Anne Raagas, Philippines

I feel quite humbled reading Freda's and Cephas' comments that the clothes must have belonged to dead people as no-one would discard clothes that good. And that Cephas is grateful to the British people for donating clothes rather than giving them to their own families. I discard many clothes I've never even worn. I appreciate the different economic circumstances in both countries, but I shall certainly make sure I donate clothes to charity shops in future and be more grateful for the ones I wear and currently take for granted.
Rosemary, Southend

I'm glad that our clothes are being used where they are needed; but please don't think we're throwing them out as rubbish - the reason we give to charity shops is so that someone else can enjoy them.
Shelley Cummings, Heanor, Derbyshire - UK

I donate a lot of clothes to charity shops every year. At first this article worried me but on reflection, if my donations are in some way benefiting Zambian families, I can live with the fact that they also provide six-figure sums for the company directors. It is better than me throwing the garments away and the comments from Cephas suggest that the donations are still needed.
Lizzie , South Wales

Maybe British people aren't buying so much stuff in charity shops because its mostly over-priced rubbish. Only our local Oxfam seem to charge fair prices.
Russell Catchpole, Chichester

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