Donated clothing: the receiving end

Physical evidence of the connections between the lives of Americans and the lives of Africans is rare to come by here in Sebikotane, but when I do stumble across some random object originating back in the world I used to live in, it never fails to strike me. I will never forget for example the day I met Pape Jamm, my host sister’s deep-voiced rapper boyfriend, because of the t-shirt he was wearing on that day, as he sat on the stoop outside the house. It was a simple white t-shirt with a little green symbol that was quite unmistakably a Girl Scout logo. I obviously got quite excited at the sight of this, and after shaking his hand eagerly and reciting a little excerpt of the girl scout promise complete with the sign language hand motions that I somehow remember from my scouting days, I asked Pape if he knew the significance of the symbol on his t-shirt. He obviously had no idea what I was talking about, and couldn’t even remember where he had gotten the shirt, but we became instant friends. To this day, whenever I see my host sister’s deep-voiced rapper boy friend I greet him as Pape Girl Scout, and it makes him smile.

Reading the writing on people’s t-shirts here can be quite entertaining in general, or at least a good way to spark conversation or fill awkward silences when sitting around in someone’s living room with nothing to do. Most of the inscriptions are in English, and sometimes involve a random mix of words that together make absolutely no sense. Others, like the girl scout t-shirts (of which I have now seen two – Pape Jamm’s and another reading ‘cool, hip and happening’) are obviously bits of clothing that once upon a time belonged to Americans, were donated to charity organizations, and somehow washed up on the shores of this continent, and ended up in the hands of these Senegalese people.

The elderly man photographed above is the ‘gardien’ at l’Ecole Sebiroute who happens to own, and wear every morning between about eight and nine thirty before the sun breaks through the haze, a heavy winter coat with a badge that contains the words “Cambridge, Massachusetts,” a place very, very close to home for me. The discovery of this article of clothing also excited me greatly one morning, as I stood with the usual group of teachers in the school yard, listening to the usual morning chatter before the start of classes. Mbaye Ba, the gardien, kindly, somewhat nervously, allowed me to take a picture.

Noticing these intriguing articles of clothing had made me wonder about how exactly they had been distributed. Where and when? Had they been sold or given out for free? I wondered about this in particular becuase most of the people who I had seen with these clothes were not exactly those whom I would have described as ‘in need of charity’: people living in comfortable houses containing broad selections of intricate Senegalese boubous and ‘trendy’ western clothing alike. Just this past Tuesday, I had the chance to witness the distribution of donated clothing. Observing this process as someone who had only ever donated or seen clothing donated, this was certainly an interesting experience.

The boxes arrived sometime on Sunday, for I found them stacked in the school library when I arrived on Monday morning. Thanks to Rudolphe no doubt, I thought as I started opening windows and turning on the lights. Rudolphe, the Frenchman who had passed through the school a few weeks ago with his clip-board, apparently representing a little village in southern France that is somehow ‘in relation’ with Sebikotane and which donates books, computers, clothing and medical equipment from time to time. Many different institutions in Sebikotane benefited from Rudolphe’s visit: schools, the maternity, women’s organizations, the town hall, health posts. The school director had called for more computers and books (even though we already have plenty, that, hem hem, weren’t even being used just a few months ago) but I wasn’t expecting all the clothing. Speaking with my host mother, who had been involved in the reception of the goods, later that evening I learned that the clothing had indeed been given to the school for the students. But apparently the director, or whoever was in charge, misunderstood or overlooked this particular detail, for only a scarce handful of students went home with new clothes that day. Instead, a few teachers (for most of the teachers were away on pilgrimage to Touba for the Grand Magal, a Mouride festival) went home with large cardboard boxes full of clothing, for them and their kids.

Being in the room as all the clothing was distributed, or taken I guess would be a better word, was rather frustrating. The director called me into the library to test out the computers (new computers? Just give them to mademoiselle Gaya, she’ll know what to do…) and so while I fiddled with these ancient machines, trying to figure out where to connect the various cables and which buttons to push first, the men started to sort through the clothing. It was kind of amusing I guess to see them examine all the ‘tubab’ clothing, trying on everything, asking each other for suggestions and advice. And I guess things just went from there. People who happened to pass by the door would be invited in and soon there was a small crowd of adults around the boxes, with maybe a few of the director’s children (but all the other kids had to stay outside – and soon the door was filled with little faces peaking inside). People would reach into the boxes, pick up an article of clothing, give it a quick glance and, if satisfactory, add it to the pile in their arms. Some people started filling empty boxes with their own personal stashes. Eventually the teachers who were still in their classrooms were sent for, but no one thought about those who were away in Touba. Too bad for them I guess.

I pretty much stood to the side throughout the process instinctively distancing myself from the free-for-all. I contented myself with folding some of the clothing tossed onto the tables and as I did so I noticed the fine quality of most of it. Jeans, intricately decorated sweaters, silky dresses, cute little baby t-shirts. I could help thinking that the school could even be selling the clothes, at very low prices of course, to at least raise a little money. But it was all just disappearing so quickly…. Some of the teachers asked me why I wasn’t taking any. I did think about taking a few outfits home for my host siblings (and now I kind of regret not having done so) but the problem was that I knew for a fact that my host siblings already had plenty of clothing, and I could not escape the notion that these clothes had been donated for people who really need them. I was clearly observing the process from the perspective of the donors, and I even tried to explain to a few of the teachers who would listen that when those people back in France boxed up their hand-me-downs to be shipped off the Africa, this was surely not the scene that they had imagined. Which was maybe a sort of round about way of saying that this was not the sort of scene that I had always imagined. Well what exactly had I imagined? Its a fair question, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think I ever really gave it much thought.

But we need it too, the teachers responded simply, and sure, their budgets are certainly a lot tighter than those of the donors back in France, but the essential issue remained that in my mind, donated clothing should always destined to people who don’t have much clothing – the desperately needy, the “poor.” And somehow the people around me did not fit the stereotype/concept/notion of “poor” that I had always gone by, and that I guess I still retain. They were just some very lucky teachers… And this is not the first time that I have been presented with a Senegalese notion of poor and not accepted it into my own. Ask any average well-dressed, well-fed, fairly-educated young person in Sebikotane what their definition of poverty is and they will probably respond poverty? Well, that’s me.

And finally, a last interesting observation to make, is how little thought the people in that room seemed to put into the whole process. It was almost like they didn’t even consider where all the clothes had come from, or why they were there. The only fact to be considered was that the clothes were there and they were for free. And so why not take as much as you can? There was no shame whatsoever in just taking, and I can’t really explain why I think there should have been, but it kind of reminded me of the day when Rudolphe came to visit with his clipboard. Rudolphe took a peak inside our pretty full, nicely organized library and seemed ready to check-off books on his list as ‘already has some’ when the director insisted that we need more. Yes, yes, more books would help us a lot, he said. It could be just a reflex, I guess, that when you are used to lacking something you take as much of it as you can when it comes your way. But I couldn’t help thinking of all the other schools, in Sebikotane and in Senegal, that surely didn’t have any books at all. And where on earth are we going to put all of these new books? I wanted to ask. But like I have observed of other receptions of donations – whether of books, medicine, computers from the government, even the services that I have given to the school – the goods were received without much thought about their past or future, how or why, or if the flow would be sustained. The Senegalese are a people used to receiving, used to moving from one day, week, month, year to the next pulled along by bouts of luck. And I wonder if this isn’t a habit that hinders the true, sustainable development of their community.

*** I thought I should just quickly add that I learned later on that other boxes or clothing had indeed reached the ‘more needy’ of Sebikotane, as they were sent to the koranic schools where the talibe children received some: the children who live and work for their religious instructor, begging in the streets.