Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Dead White Man's Clothing : Online Articles About Imported Second Hand Clothes ("Obroni Wawu") In Ghana, West Africa

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents excerpts of several online articles about the Ghanaian term "obroni wawu" (also given as "obroni waa wu"). That Twi term is commonly translated as "dead White man's clothing".

The Addendum to this post presents links to three YouTube videos about obroni wawu markets in Ghana. Many more videos about oboni wawu markets are available on YouTube. 

The content of this post is presented for linguistics and socio-cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click for the closely related pancocojams post entitled " "Yevu" And "Obroni" (Ghanaian Referents For White People And For Foreigners, Including Black People Who Were Weren't Born & Raised In Ghana)".

These articles are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

Article #1:
"Glossary – Obroni Wawu

Posted on 2018-02-06

Obroni Wawu is a phrase used in Ghana that literally translates as “dead white man’s clothes”.

Many of the clothes donated to charities are sold to Africa, and Ghana is one of the largest purchases of used clothing. However, there is a problem — the influx of used Western fashions are killing the traditional African textile and clothing industries, and the recent influx of fast fashion is also lowering the quality of the second hand clothes. As a result many African nations are now banning the importation of ‘dead white man’s clothes.’"
This is the entire article.

Article #2
From  "The Secret Life of Your Donated Clothes [no writer credited], Nov. 21, 2014
"Ever wondered what happened to that old, but once stylish, shirt you donated to your local charity shop?

It is always assumed that people who shop at charity shops buy the clothes we donate. In reality, most of the clothes that we stuff into a black plastic bag and drive to a charity shop end up halfway around the world.

With the UK’s addiction to fast fashion, numbers linked to this trend point out a worrying situation. While figures vary, one study suggests that as many as 8 out of 10 garments are not actually sold in charity shops. Landfills, and developing countries seem to be among the favourite destinations for our worn clothes.

One of the places some of your belongings could end up in is Accra, Ghana. Here your cast offs are affectionately known as obroni wawu meaning “dead white man’s clothes”.

Ghana is the largest buyer of donated clothes. Ghana’s capital Accra sees over 30,000 tons arrive at its port every year. 


The lower prices of obroni wawu coupled with the fact that many people in Ghana, particularly the younger generation, prefer to wear western clothing (due to the influence of social media and TV), threatens both the wearing of Ghanaian fabrics and the traditional cultural practice of weaving fabric using a handloom.

The overall lack of demand for more traditional clothing has therefore had a major impact on the Ghanaian clothing industry. For example, one of Ghana’s largest textile manufacturers Akosombo Textiles, was producing nearly 2 million metres a month in 2009. This amount has now fallen by 75 per cent putting many local textile businesses on the verge of closing down.”…

Article #3
"Dead White Mens Clothes, short DWMC, is a platform, art project and clothing brand that produces eco-friendly merchandise, reworked second-hand clothes, zines and other content.

The origin of the label’s name lies in the Ghanaian term “Obroni Wawu” which can be translated to “DEAD WHITE MEN’S CLOTHES”. When first waves of second-hand clothes arrived from “the west“ in the 70’s the locals could not believe that such high-quality clothing could just be given away for free, so they assumed that the previous owner must have died.

Founded in 2017 by Jojo Gronostay, DWMC addresses questions about the fashion system, neocolonialism and identity. It has made art for gallery shows and museums.”…

Article #4
From "A Guide to Accra's Kantamanto Market" by Kwame Aidoo, 16 May 2017
"Kantamanto is Ghana’s biggest second hand clothes market and it’s right in the heart of the capital, Accra; annexed to Makola Market; the largest point of trade in the city. Kantamanto is a community on its own – full of arrangements of hand-me-down clothes, vehicle spare parts, home decor and footwear, which together give it the look of a grand flea market with almost no space left to spare.

The market’s structure

This bustling centre of commerce was gutted by a fire in 2013, but is now back to its former glory. At the centre of Accra, Kantamanto is marked out to the south by the popular White Chapel (UTC) building and to the north by a train line which connects Dzorwulu to Tema. Sheds the size of typical Ghanaian lotto booths with no doorways stack previously owned suits, t-shirts, jeans, dresses, lingerie, flip flops and khaki trousers, in what looks like a giant series of collages.

At weekends, there’s more human traffic than on weekdays as people from Accra and its outskirts flood the market, bargaining their way through the wooden stalls and magically meandering through the labyrinth of stacked clothes. Buyers visit from as far as the Eastern, Volta, Central regions and even from neighbouring countries, to update their stock."...

Article #5
From Man’s Clothes "Dead White Man's Clothes" words by Liz Ricketts and J. Branson Skinner, photographs by Charlie Engman, 10.22.2019

"In Accra, Ghana, imported second-hand clothing—or “dead white man’s clothes”—represents a massive industry with complex environmental, social, and economic implications.

….We have known Abena since the first day we began our research, in 2016. We have watched her cut many bales—UK bales when she is making a profit and Canada bales when last week’s sales weren’t as good. Abena only sells ladies’ tops. (Each retailer in the market chooses one item, usually from the same country, in order to differentiate themselves.) Abena’s customers, mostly office workers and women who manage boutiques outside of the market, have come to expect a certain quality of item from Abena, even though Abena has no control over the contents of her bales.

“I have been here for three years now. It has changed. When I came here, if I cut one bale, I would sell it all and get my money back, but nowadays, if you cut a bale it is very hard to get back your money.”

Abena readies herself, pulling her stool closer to the bale, taking a deep breath and cutting the metal bands that compress over 400 pieces of clothing into a 34 x 16 x 14 inch bale weighing at least 120 pounds. A label indicates “UK Mixed Ladies Tops,” but the woven plastic wrapping conceals any details of the garments inside.

Bales of clothing like the one Abena is cutting arrive on the importer side of Kantamanto in 40-foot shipping containers throughout the week. These containers make their way from Ghana’s main port in Tema Harbour, a city some 25 minutes past Abena’s home. Our research has concluded that there are roughly 100 containers offloaded in Kantamanto on a weekly basis. Each container holds an average of 400 120-pound bales, with each bale containing secondhand and deadstock clothing that has been collected and packed abroad. That adds up to nearly five million pounds of clothing flowing through the market every week. At an average of three garments per pound, that’s roughly 15 million items. We calculate that some of those items immediately make their way to other markets and other countries, leaving Kantamanto with around 11 million items of clothing to sell each week. By all accounts, Kantamanto is the largest secondhand clothing market in Ghana, but it is not the only secondhand market in the country where containers are offloaded. To put that in perspective, the population of Ghana is 30 million people.

Once Abena has cut the bale and peeled away the plastic, sorting begins. The selection process involves dividing the clothes into four categories. First selection is the top-quality garments. Quality is subjective, but generally, a first selection garment includes anything that has never been worn (deadstock and donated goods with tags still attached) and trendy items (both in brand and silhouette) that are clean and free of holes. Abena will sell a first selection top for 10 Ghana cedis (about $2). Second selection includes worn but trendy, well-maintained items that are the right size for the retailer’s customer base. Third selection includes anything that has obvious signs of wear, is noticeably faded, is the wrong size (too large), or is culturally taboo (e.g. booty shorts). The final category is referred to as asie or “under.” This is what the retailer immediately considers to be trash, including non-clothing items (plastic waste, food, a random boot), slashed deadstock (a common fashion industry practice), torn or deteriorating garments, and clothing that is covered in stains or offensive smells.

Bales are expensive. Contrary to popular belief, donated clothing is often not handed out for free to people in need. Individual bales cost between $75 and $400. Considering other expenses (rent, sanitation fees, storage fees), retailers need to recoup at least 75 percent of the bale’s price with the sale of first selection alone. If they cut a bale and find that it contains only a few first selection pieces, the retailer will not make their money back. At times, the situation can be remedied by taking a chance on another bale, but more often than not, such doubling down sends the retailer further into debt.

For this reason, most secondhand clothing retailers describe their job as gambling.

Through survey data, interviews, and reviewing retailers’ financial logs, we have found that the average bale contains 18 percent first selection, 30 percent second selection, 46 percent third selection, and 6 percent “under.” Of the retailers we surveyed, 46 percent did not make their money back on their last bale and only 16 percent made a profit. While most traders have the cash flow to buy food and take public transit, living expenses—like electricity, children’s school fees, and phone data—become a luxury.

The market days when the vast majority of bales are cut open—Wednesdays and Saturdays—are filled with a tense energy among the retailers. At the same time, many Ghanaian consumers come to the market excited. Shoppers huddle around the retailers as they sort, hoping to snag first selection items—just as consumers in the Global North stand in lines for product drops. But in Kantamanto, exclusivity truly reigns supreme, as it is nearly impossible to find two of the same item. For consumers, market days represent opportunity. Not only are the price points accessible, so too is the expression of identity through style.

It takes Abena around 40 minutes to sort roughly 400 ladies’ tops. Today, Abena’s bale is good, with 70 pieces of first selection—more than she had hoped for this morning—and no more than 30 pieces of “under,” which now lay in the dirt aisle. The selection process gives insight into the expertise of the retailers: Each seller knows her customers, and many of the sellers keep up with international trends and celebrity influencers."...

Article #6
From "The Secret Life of Your Clothes" by Andy Wells - Producer Director [2021]
"Every day thousands of people in the UK donate their old clothes to charity. And like many of us I assumed they ended up on the rails of high street charity shops and were bought by people searching for a bargain...

In Britain we spend more than £60 billion on clothes every year. Even though I’ve now stopped trying to dress like Morrissey, I must confess that I buy more clothes than I need, or can possibly wear. And I’m not alone. The average British woman purchases an astonishing 68 new garments and seven new pairs of shoes every year....

But if people in Britain are no longer buying cast offs where do all our old clothes end up? My filming began at a recycling depot in the Midlands. There are hundreds of these depots around the country and from the outside they look like any other building you would find on an industrial estate. Only they are full of our old clothes. Lots and lots of them. Whilst we were filming a steady stream of trucks laden with charity shop bags arrived one after the other. Once unloaded the clothes are sorted and bundled up into bales, sold by weight to foreign buyers and then exported.

One country takes more of our cast offs than any other, Ghana in West Africa and that’s where our trail really started. We arrived in the capital Accra. Every three days shipping containers packed full with our used clothing arrive and are unloaded at Accra’s wholesale market. It’s a mesmerising sight - the sheer scale of the operation is staggering. The surrounding streets and warehouses are piled high with thousands of bales of used clothing from Europe and North America, fuelling a whole industry of traders, porters and food sellers. This is where we met Eric, a wholesaler who regularly visits the UK on buying trips and who imports clothes from recycling companies based in Leeds, Coventry and Birmingham. Almost all of the trousers and shirts he imports have been donated to British charities.

Traveling from the grey skies of Britain in winter to the vibrancy and beauty of Ghana was a filmmakers dream. But it’s also one of the worst places for disabled facilities and our presenter was paralympian basketball player Ade Adepitan. Taking a wheelchair into markets teeming with people was always going to be challenging. Taking a film crew in as well to follow Ade and record pieces to camera along the way even more so. We got through it and that was down to the determination of Ade to make the sequences work and cameraman Justin Evans who made it look effortless with his beautiful images. All obstacles and barriers were quite literally overcome through their tenacity.

Most people we met were eager to talk about the trade that people in Ghana call obroni wawu, or dead white man’s clothes. It provides many Ghanaians with a living and it helps clothe some of the poorest people in the world. At the same time some blame it for the collapse of Ghana’s own garments industry and say it’s undermining the country’s culture.

….Second hand clothes have had a presence in Ghana for a long time. They first arrived with European missionaries who gave them away for free in the 50s and 60s. But somewhere along the line the trade in used clothing turned into a billion pound industry and that business is being driven by our own addiction to cheap, disposable fashion.”…

Article #7
From "Recycling association slams waste dumping in Ghana" Written by Chris Remington,  Published: 20 February 2020
"The UK’s Textile Recycling Association (TRA) has reiterated that there should be no waste within shipments of clothes sent to African retail markets, after an investigation by British broadcaster ITV spotlighted how countries like Ghana are dumping grounds for apparel not fit for reuse.

Images of 30-foot heaps of high street-labelled garment waste, which spills over from landfill sites into the sea, highlights the need for urgent action within the fashion and textile industries as cities on the Ghanaian coast are devastated by the effects of mass apparel consumption and waste.

Though Africa’s retail markets welcome new shipments every week – creating business from UK fashion’s cast-offs – they increasingly face an influx of cheap, unsalvageable garment waste which only serves to pollute the environment."
This is the portion of this article that is available without subscription.

Article #8
From "SPRUIK, KAYAYEI, OBRONI WAWU." August 13, 2021 by languagehat 
"This ABC News (Australia) piece by Linton Besser in Ghana is excellent (and infuriating — stop buying too many clothes, wearing them twice, and discarding them, people!), and it has several passages of decided LH [language hat] interest.


[quote from that documentary] “transporting the 55kg bales around the teeming bazaar, with its narrow passageways and thousands of customers, is impossible by mechanical means. So the job falls to Accra’s ranks of head porters, or kayayei, “the women who carry the burden”.

Kayayei has its own Wikipedia article, from which we learn:

The term kayayei (singular, kaya yoo) is a compound formed from two languages spoken in Ghana. Kaya means “load, luggage, goods or burden” in the Hausa language, and yei means “women or females” in the Ga language. People in Kumasi refer to the porters as paa o paa.

I’m not sure why kayayei is written as one word and kaya yoo as two, but never mind, it’s what I needed to know, and I can confirm from my Hausa dictionary that kāyā (pl. kāyàyakkī) means ‘load; goods; stuff; property; clothes.’ And finally, we get:

[quote from that documentary] Wander around Accra and every spare inch of pavement seems occupied by a hawker, a new batch of old clothing folded and hung among their wares. They call them “obroni wawu” — dead white man’s clothes.”

Again Wikipedia comes to the rescue, s.v. Oburoni:

Oborɔnyi is the Akan (or more specifically, the Fante) word for foreigner, literally meaning “those who come from over the horizon.” It is often colloquially translated into “white person.” […]

The word oborɔnyi derives from the word bor (Fante), which means “from beyond the horizon,” and nyi, which is a suffix that means “person”. The plural form of oborɔnyi is aborɔfo (fo is the plural form of nyi), which is often used to refer to the English language or English people.[citation needed]

There is another theory that oborɔnyi is derived from the similarly sounding phrase aburo foɔ, which means “trickster”, “one who frustrates” or “one who cannot be trusted.”[citation needed]”…
Here's one comment from this article's discussion thread
David Eddyshaw says:

August 13, 2021 at 2:38 pm
"The word ɔbŭróní rapidly becomes very familiar to any European wandering around in the south of Ghana, as small boys feel impelled to shout it out at you in case you haven’t noticed that you were European before.

Unfortunately about the only thing I can say in Twi is “Do you speak Twi?”, which, given that I don’t, is not particularly useful in practice …

FWIW, I seem to recall that ɔbŭróní originally meant “bush person” (i.e., anybody not like us civilised Akan.)

Christaller’s dictionary sheds no light on its origin, and has no word like bor “beyond the horizon.”

Abra is “deceit.” The derivation from that looks like folk etymology to me. People are very ready to offer folk etymologies when it comes to Twi/Fante, which unfortunately suggest themselves all too readily given the simple phonological structure of the language(s).

The word you hear shouted after you by small boys in the north is Nasaara, which is of known provenance; it comes (via the local Hausa dialect, though not Kano Hausa) ultimately from the Arabic for “Christians.

Talking of opaque words for “European”, I’ve often wondered about the Wolof word

Looks (again) like nobody really knows….”
As of August 17, 2021 there were 46 comments about this language hat article.
A link to the Australian documentary that is referred to in this language discussion thread is given as Video #3 below.

These video links are given in no particular order. 
Video #1: KANTAMANTO : The Second Hand City

Infoboxdaily. Feb 2, 2015
"Known to many Ghanaians as the 'Bend Down Boutique," Kantamanto market is West Africa's biggest and busiest clothing shopping centre. If you've ever wondered exactly how business is conducted in this bustling market, we've got a tour guide to show you"


The Acheampong Family, Apr 16, 2021
"We need new clothes, but if this is shopping in Ghana I'm not sure I can handle it."
The wife and husband in this family are both of mixed race ancestry (from Ghana and from the Netherlands). This couple and their two young children relocated to Ghana one and a half years ago. [Update August 21, 2021: The family is moving back to the Netherlands soon in part because their visas expired]. The husband filmed his wife trying to shop in the huge outdoor Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana. 

Video #3: The Environmental Disaster that is Fuelled by Used Clothes and Fast Fashion | Foreign Correspondent

ABC News In-depth, Aug 12, 2021
"The dark side of the world’s fashion addiction. Many of our old clothes, donated to  charities, end up in rotting textile mountains in West Africa. This is a story about how our waste is creating an environmental disaster.

Have you ever thought about what happens to your old clothes after you drop them off at the op shop? It might be time to start, because these goodwill gestures are helping to fuel an environmental catastrophe on the other side of the world.

When charities in Australia can’t sell donated clothing, tonnes of it ends up being exported to countries like Ghana, in West Africa. Ship after ship docks every week with bales from Europe, the US, China and Australia.

 They call them ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’. Once they arrive in Ghana, they’re taken to the bustling Kantamanto markets in the capital Accra and from here, they make their way to villages and towns across the country.

The industry provides jobs for thousands of people, like Asare Asamoah, a successful importer.

He brings in clothes, mainly from the United Kingdom, and if they’re good quality, he can make a decent living.

But it’s risky business. He has to pay upfront for a bale and never knows whether it’s trash or treasure. With cheap, fast fashion flooding the world, the quality of the clothes arriving in Ghana is getting worse and worse.

‘Sometimes you’ve gone and bought something, then you don’t get what you want’, says Asamoah. ‘Then you lose your money.”

And there’s a dark side to this industry.

Correspondent Linton Besser travels to Ghana to uncover the dirty secret behind the world’s fashion addiction.

While 60 per cent of imported fashion items are reused and resold, 40 per cent are rubbish, creating an environmental catastrophe for this poor nation.

 With the main dumpsite for textile waste now full, unregulated dumpsites ring the city. These fetid clothes mountains are often set on fire, filling the skies with acrid smoke.

"It is totally a disservice to us in this part of the world because we have become sort of the dumping ground for the textile waste that is produced from Europe, from the Americas”, says Accra’s waste manager, Solomon Noi.

Emmanuel Ajaab imports used clothes from Australia but he despairs at the poor quality of the clothes that arrive. From a bale of about 200 garments, he finds only seven he can resell at a good price."

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1 comment:

  1. Obroni Wawu (also given as Broni Wawu) is the title of a 2015 Ghanaian movie.

    Here's a quote about that movie from
    ..."The storyline for Broni Wawu:
    Kyeiwaa acted as the C.E.O of Yaakson group of companies and she had a lifetime ambition-that she get married to a white man. Her dream came to pass when she met Van Vicker, who was by then a wretched second hand clothes seller.

    Kyeiwaa lures Van Vicker with her money and finally marries him. Van Vicker’s, friend Kwaku Manu influenced Van to force the old woman (Kyeiwaa) to hand over her company and assets to him to manage.

    Eventually they legally take away her company and assets from the illiterate woman and after winning her possessions, they drove her away from her own house and bring in a much younger and educated lady.

    The big question is – Will Kyeiwaa sit unconcerned and watch the Obroni Wawu sellers take away her properties?"
    This description of that movie uses the actresses/actors names for their character. Notice that the storyline indicates that Kyeiaa always dreamed of marrying a white man and her dream comes true when she marries Van Vicker.

    I wonder if the Twi word "obroni" was originally used in that article instead of the referent "White man". "Obroni" doesn't only mean "White man" (or "White woman"). Ghanaians also refer to people who are mixed race (Black/White ancestry) as "obroni". That definition fits that movie better than "White man" since the actor portraying the seller of second hand clothes is mixed race.

    According to "Joseph van Vicker (born 1 August 1977),[2] better known as Van Vicker, is a Ghanaian actor,movie director and humanitarian.

    Vicker was born in Accra, Ghana on to a Ghanaian/ Liberian mother[5] and a Dutch father.[6][7][8] His father died when he was six years old.[7] He has often cited in interviews that he considers himself a global citizen as he was raised all over the world by his mother. Due to the early death of his father Vicker has stated that he is very close to his mother and considers her his hero."...

    Click for a short clip of that 2015 Obroni Wawu movie.