When filmmaker Shantha Bloemen was stationed in a remote village in Zambia as a worker with an international aid organization, she had to adjust to living in a different culture. She learned to cook “mealie meal,” the local staple, and carry water on her head from the river—located over a mile from her home. But one thing struck her as oddly familiar: almost everyone in the village wore secondhand clothing from the West, from the village elder decked out in a Chanel knockoff jacket to women in AC/DC T-shirts to children sporting Adidas sneakers. Bloemen began to imagine stories about the people who used to wear the clothing, wondering if the original owners had any idea that the castoffs they had given to charities ended up being sold to Africans half a world away.
What began as an amusement, however, began to take on more serious overtones as Bloemen learned of the consequences of the secondhand clothing trade. She noticed more and more Zambians in the markets—teachers, nurses and civil servants who, having lost their jobs, turned to selling secondhand clothes. How, Bloemen wondered, did all of these Africans end up selling used clothing?” And where did all the T-shirts, jackets, hats and skirts come from? She decided to follow the trail of the secondhand clothes.
In T-SHIRT TRAVELS, Bloemen first travels to the Jersey shore, where she interviews Americans who donate their goods to various charities but have little idea that their former wardrobes end up in Africa. She talks to export agent Barney Lehrer from Brooklyn, who tells her that the Salvation Army doesn’t even unpack most of the donated clothing but sells it to companies for export to third-world countries.
Strapped and packed in bales like hay, the companies who export the goods sell them to commercial dealers in Africa, who mark up the bales of clothing a whopping three to four hundred percent. These dealers in turn sell to Africans like Luka Mafo, a 19-year-old Zambian who sells secondhand clothing to support his mother, brothers, sisters and cousins, hoping he can help them to stay in school and graduate.
But Bloemen still wondered: Was it always this way? What happened to all of the Zambian clothing manufacturers? Mark O’Donnell, spokesperson for Zambian Manufacturers, explains that in 1991, when the country’s markets were opened to free trade, container load after container load of used clothing began to arrive in Zambia, undercutting the cost of the domestic manufacturers and putting them out of business. The skills, the infrastructure and the capital of an entire industry are now virtually extinct, with not a single clothing manufacturer left in the country today.
Many Zambians feel that the stringent economic policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or the IMF, are to blame for their country’s insurmountable debt. Sophi Phiri, a corporate investment banker, says: “We don’t have a political colonialism in Zambia, we have an economic colonialism. “If they [the World Bank] can control the shots that far then are we an independent state?”
“What hope do Africa’s creditors have of ever recouping their loans if Africa’s workforce is hungry and sick and uneducated?” Bloemen asks. “If we continue to bend the economic lives of poorer nations to suit our purposes and only make things worse in the process, whom will be left to make good on the debt? Do we want to live in a world where one sixth of the population has no chance to even see their children grow up healthy?” The end of the film, having followed the T-shirts on their travels, leaves Bloemen with more questions than ever before.
The film ends in 2001. In February 2004, filmmaker Shantha Bloemen reported:
“Luka is doing well and may even be getting married sometime this year. Anna Backer, the film’s director of photography, and other viewers have helped to support the family. At the moment, the family is working on finishing a house they have build with brick and glass windows. It has taken a couple of years, but they have used the support we have sent to build as well as ensure that the kids stay in school. The sad news is that Maureen, Luka’s younger sister who appears in the documentary, tragically died in 2002. I am still not completely sure about the circumstances surrounding her death. On a more positive note though, Chiwesa, Luka’s brother is planning to complete his high school diploma next year.”
Watch interviews with the people featured in T-SHIRT TRAVELS >>
Learn more about Zambia, its history and the impact of debt >>
Track the journey of a T-shirt from New York to Zambia >>