The road to Lindi and Mtwara: The second-hand clothing trade in a periphery

While I was in Tanzania earlier this year, people regularly asked me: “Why do you carry out your research on second-hand clothes in Lindi and Mtwara? The centre of the mitumba trade is Dar es Salaam!” As Tanzania’s economic centre and location of the port where the second-hand clothes enter the country, Dar es Salaam would indeed be a feasible research location. However, due to my focus on the translocal rather than the global scale, introduced in a previous post, I decided to look beyond the port of arrival.

The mitumba trade reaches every remote corner of Tanzania and it connects large cities with secondary towns and their rural hinterland. I chose to focus on the secondary towns of Lindi and Mtwara on Tanzania’s southern coast specifically because I was already familiar with the region. Moreover, many of the mitumba traders in Dar es Salaam originate from there. In fact, the common word for “petty trader” in Swahili – machinga – is also the name of one of the ethnic groups residing on the southern coast. Finally, a lively mitumba trade also exists in the region itself, as can be observed at daily auctions in Lindi and Mtwara town.

Nowadays the travel from Dar es Salaam to Mtwara can be comfortably made on luxury coaches, such as this bus from the company “Machinga High Class”.

Nevertheless, I understand the surprise about my choice of study location. Lindi and Mtwara have for long been known as sleepy, disconnected towns with little economic activity. Sources I found in the National Archives (TNA) in the UK indicate that the region was already known as an underdeveloped periphery when it was under British colonial rule. The name of Lindi Province was changed to Southern Province in the early 1930s. The official reason for this name change was to make the name more “descriptive”, as the Annual Report for Tanganyika of 1934 stated, but the actual aim was to shed off the negative connotations attached to the name Lindi. The recently appointed Provincial Commissioner motivated the request for change by stating that “the Province suffers from its name”. He also explained that he himself was suffering from the “Lindi complex” upon arrival in Lindi. “It is difficult to diagnose the complaint but it no doubt arises from the very trying climate and living conditions and a belief that the Province is a back-water.”[1]

Notably, the region has not always been a periphery. The coast was incorporated in global trade networks in pre-colonial times, through the slave and ivory trade across the Indian Ocean, which also brought foreign textiles to the region. The ports of Lindi and Kilwa were already prominent in such networks before the city of Dar es Salaam even had come into existence. People have for centuries moved in and out of the region in search of work, trade, land or security, for instance from across the Ruvuma River south of Mtwara which constitutes the border between present-day Tanzania and Mozambique. Nevertheless, the region somehow became known as a disconnected and underdeveloped area in the British colonial period. Scholarly literature on the area commonly argues that the image of being a “back-water” somehow became a self-fulling prophecy and made it into a periphery (see Seppälä and Koda, 1998). The lack of infrastructure and the miserable state of the roads in the region has been lamented upon by government officials for the better part of the twentieth century. It hindered trade and the export of agricultural produce. As argued by Streit (2018: 529), the general lack of infrastructure confirmed the peripheral image of the region, therewith justifying a lack of investments there.

Colonial reports in the 1950s already mentioned plans for improvement of the road connecting Lindi and Mtwara to Dar es Salaam.[2] Yet, it took some sixty years before this road was finished. Until then, the travel from Lindi to Dar es Salaam, a distance of some 500 kilometres, could take several days and was simply impossible during the rainy season. This road has for long symbolized the region’s disconnected status. The lack of opportunities induced young men (and sometimes women) to look for a job or trade elsewhere in Tanzania. These young people found a place to stay and work in larger cities through people they knew from “home”. The lack of good infrastructure therefore paradoxically included the region in translocal networks of labour migration.

The remaining unfinished part of the Dar es Salaam – Lindi road during my first visits to the region in 2010. Passing these some 30 kilometers alone would already take several hours, indicating the considerable length of travel before road improvement had started.

While many young people left the region in the 1980s and 1990s, others started trading second-hand clothes on informal auctions in the towns. The road to Dar es Salaam was finally finished in the early 2010s. The travel to Mtwara takes some eight hours by bus now, making it easier for labour migrants living in Dar es Salaam to visit their family members who stayed in the south. The better connection has also impacted the way mitumba traders in the region itself can access goods. Some have simply continued to order stock through brokers in Dar es Salaam, which is then brought to them by bus or lorry. However, several traders in Mtwara told me they travel to Dar frequently, say once or twice a month, so that they can select their bales of clothing themselves. The mitumba trade is sometimes characterized as a “gamble”: the quality and appropriateness for local markets varies considerably between the bales of clothing. Some yield high profit while others render great losses. Being able to travel to the city and to select ones stock oneself can therefore make all the difference. Together with the emergence of mobile phones and mobile money, the finishing of the road to Dar es Salaam has therefore provided the local mitumba traders with a variety of options to organize their trade.

Bibliography

Seppälä, Pekka, and Bertha Koda, eds. 1998. The Making of a Periphery: Economic Development and Cultural Encounters in Southern Tanzania. Seminar Proceedings 32. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

Streit, Katie Valliere. 2019. ‘South Asian Entrepreneurs in the Automotive Age: Negotiating a Place of Belonging in Colonial and Post-Colonial Tanzania’. Journal of Eastern African Studies 13 (3): 525–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/17531055.2019.1628163


[1] TNA, FCO/141/17729: Provincial Commissioner Lindi Province Kitching, Lindi, to the Acting Chief Secretary, Dar es Salaam, 3 January 1934.

[2] TNA, CO 822/975/12: Minutes of the conference to consider certain aspects of development in the Southern Province, Mtwara, 23 and 24 September 1955.

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