Second-hand clothing everywhere: Arriving at my research topic

My first encounter with the mitumba (second-hand clothing) trade in Tanzania took place in 2009, when I spent several weeks in Dar es Salaam to take a Swahili language class course. During this stay, I visited a family that rented several rooms around a courtyard at Ilala Market. The family’s living space blended in with the market: the front door was directly adjacent to stalls where mitumba were sold and one immediately stepped out into the bustle of the marketplace when leaving the house. Moreover, some of the rooms the family rented were used as overnight stores for the bales of clothing. During later stays in Tanzania, I occassionally spent the night in this family’s main living room. I would wake up at the crack of dawn to the sound of the unsteady footsteps of men carrying heavy bales of clothing from the storage rooms to the market stalls outside. Not long after, the electronic recording devices that blared out sales messages would be turned on, driving off any remaining sleep I would have.

Some of the daily activities of this family also related to the second-hand clothing trade. For example, one of the women cooked food on the courtyard to sell to the traders. And a young male family member was playing semi-professional football for Ashanti United, a team based at Ilala Market. Notably, this team is known as a group of mitumba-sellers, even though not all players engage in this trade. In short, the mitumba trade was central to this family’s daily lives and livelihoods, even if they did not trade in mitumba itself.

I learned that the trade itself was mainly carried out by rural migrants who had arrived in Dar es Salaam in the 1980s or after. Many of them originate from Tanzania’s southern coast, from the Lindi and Mtwara regions. During my second stay in Tanzania, in 2010, I decided to go to Lindi for fieldwork for my master thesis (on an unrelated topic). I observed that the mitumba trade was also omnipresent there. I encountered it on the markets in Lindi Town, where the clothes are sold piece by piece to the highest bidder at an improvised auction place under a tree. I also encountered it at my host family’s home: every now and then a hawker would pass-by with some thirty pieces of second-hand clothing. And I encountered it on one of my bus rides back to Dar es Salaam, when I sat next to a young mitumba trader who told me he made the journey on a weekly basis to get new stock. Moreover, I participated in the trade myself, as a customer. I bought several pieces of second-hand clothing and had them made fit to my size by a local tailor. I also received second-hand clothes as gifts, both for myself and to bring back home to relatives in Europe. These clothes thus turned from an anonymous donation into a commodity into a personal gift, while traversing continents.

The trade itself fascinated me but I was even more intrigued by its seeming profitability. I noticed that while some of the mitumba traders in Dar es Salaam were living relatively comfortably, their (female) family members who had remained in Lindi were often in more precarious positions. One particularly successful trader I knew had constructed his own brick home in a middle-class neighbourhood in Dar es Salaam and could afford to send his children to private schools. His sister in Lindi lived in a wattle-and-daub house on a family plot and was by times food insecure. This disparity in wealth intrigued me: these traders seemingly were able to accumulate quite some wealth from goods that were discarded as worthless elsewhere in the world.

All these observations made me curious to learn more about this trade. It took me some ten years after my initial observations, but I have finally started a research project on the topic. If this blog post has made you as curious as I am, you can read about some of my findings here in the time to come.

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