T-Shirt Travels: A Documentary on Secondhand Clothes and Third World Debt in Zambia. Grassroots Pictures.
Reviewed by Karen Tranberg Hansen
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2002)
Secondhand Clothing, Metaphors, and Third World Debt in Zambia
This snappy video with its appealing soundtrack of recent music from Zambia examines the Third World debt burden from the ground up. The international secondhand-clothing trade positions everyday donors of used clothing in the West, major charities, commercial clothing sorters and exporters, and consumers in Zambia who are worlds apart within the same global frame of operation. What we make of these interconnections depends. Shanta Bloemen, an Australian, was clearly struck by the abundance of "American" T-shirts she saw while working as a volunteer in Zambia in 1994, and wondered where they came from and why no new clothes were manufactured in the country. <cite>T-Shirt Travels</cite> is her quest to understand Zambia's development predicament as evidenced in the country's enormous debt burden, one of the highest per capita in the developing world. American T-shirts are metaphors for deep external dependencies in the video's explanation of the effects of economic decline on the lives of people in Zambia. <p> The video offers three intersecting accounts that unfold across global-local space. One account is the export story that links donors in the United States and small-scale traders in Zambia. A second account deals with the World Bank/International Monetary Fund's policies of structural adjustment and market liberalization. And the third account is of the hopes and aspirations of Luka Mafo, a nineteen year old grade nine school drop-out selling used clothes in Mongu, the provincial headquarters of Zambia's Western Province in order to help support his widowed mother and younger siblings. These three intersecting accounts are in turn punctuated by comments from several named "experts" ranging from a woman history professor at the University of Zambia, a Harvard development economist, a Zambian investment banker, to former president Kenneth Kaunda. <p> Concerning the first account, the video introduces viewers to structural adjustment policies, neo-liberalism, and some of the social and economic problems in their wake, including the collapse of the clothing industry. In fact, the demise of the domestic textile and garment industries has more to do with Kaunda's inept command economy than it has with the 1990s' economic liberalization. A variety of "experts" make statements about the situation, including a banker and a young man seated next to a bale of secondhand clothing, speaking in a marked American accent. The presence in this setting of this particular young man who obviously is not a run-of-the mill small-scale trader is not very believable unless we get some information on who he is and why he is there. The dichotomy that is being drawn between the United States/America and Zambia is exaggerated and not very convincing, given the story the video is telling. My freshman students with whom I previewed the video were quick to point out one contradiction: while the experts were blaming America, most ordinary people were coveting it. <p> The second account, which is the chief frame of the video, is problematic. Blaming the International Monetary Fund/World Bank and "America" (the West) for Africa's problems is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, world systems theory, and neo-colonialism with the difference that this video puts the blame in the language of globalization, neo-liberalism, and free markets. That story won't grab an audience's attention when being put forward in schoolmarmish fashion by a Harvard professor who generalizes about all of Africa and other experts picked from here and there. Why them? What else is there to say? The video neither examines nor explains local consumers' points of view. Why, many viewers are likely to ask, is used clothing such a desirable commodity in Zambia? <p> The third account is about Luka. This is an engaging attempt to personalize and connect individual experiences with the larger issues. Yet Luka's story and his relationship to his mother are not well articulated, she seems to be in a dilemma, we aren't really told why, and we don't get to know why secondhand clothes are the source of their livelihood. Luka's story is full of potentials that drop out because of the framing of the video. A more detailed focus on everyday life in Zambia rather than on the evils of the World Bank would make the video immensely more compelling. <p> The intersection of these three accounts, the intermittent injections of Bloemen's voice, the voice of a narrator, and translations from local languages fragment the video viewing experience. A radical rupture appears about mid-way into the video when narration and imagery hark back to the exploitations of slavery and colonialism in scenes that group all Africans together; there is an archive voice that sounds like a commentator on a movie news reel describing village life with a photo backdrop that looks as if it depicts the Maasai in Kenya. Then the video moves on, through nationalism and the exciting times right after independence in Zambia when schooling and jobs were easily available. There are several clumsy disconnects in the form of solid-colored black frames with keyword captions, among them "structural adjustment," "subsidies," and "income generation." Finally, the three intersecting accounts sometimes confuse the viewer who is not familiar with this region of Africa. Because there is no detailed Zambia map, viewers occasionally lose track of where the action is taking place, in Mongu, or in Lusaka. <p> My freshman students were moved by Luka's story but they wanted much more. They said that they missed context, that the video gave them no sense of Zambia as a modern country, with large cities, supermarkets, residential areas, and a ruling class. According to them the video had many missing links; they wanted to know more, for instance, about what happens to the clothes we donate to charities before they arrive in a country like Zambia. There was so much focus on poverty, the students said, and the grinding account of misery built up so relentlessly and overwhelmingly without any suggested solution or concrete measures that they had a hard time envisioning how people in Zambia, both poor and rich, in fact are living. To be sure, the international secondhand clothing trade lends itself readily to visual representation as in this video which is bound to engage its viewers. As is the case with some of the connections that are drawn in this video, this export trade also lends itself easily to distortions of local complexity. For all these reasons this video will without a doubt fuel lively classroom discussions.
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Karen Tranberg Hansen. Review of , T-Shirt Travels: A Documentary on Secondhand Clothes and Third World Debt in Zambia.
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