In common with many developing countries, Ghana has both its traditional forms of dress, now reserved mostly for funerals and festivals, and Western dress that has been adopted for everyday wear at work and at home. Although in the early decades of independence there were many skilful tailors and seamstresses who earned their living by providing clothes for men and women, boys and girls, in the last fifteen years of the twentieth century the main source of Western-style clothing became the Western countries themselves. The imported clothes were not new, however, but used clothing known in Ghana as oboroni wawu,’the white person has died’ or ‘dead man’s clothes.’
In the age of kalebule under the dictatorship of Colonel/General Ignatious Kutu Acheampong (January 1972 to July 1978) and then General Fred Akuffo (July 1978 to June 1979), foreign exchange was very scarce and importation was closely controlled. In this economic environment local small-scale industries flourished and developed rapidly as local needs had to be met by local effort. This was the heyday of the informal sector in which developments in the local textile industries supported expansion of the tailoring and dressmaking trades. With a brief pause during the democratic interlude under President Hilla Limann (September 1979 to December 1981), the tight controls on importation resumed after the second coming of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings on 31 December 1981.
In spite of Rawlings’ initial vow never to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), by 1983 the IMF was dictating economic policy and by 1985 cheap foreign goods were flooding into Ghana, financed by long and medium-term loans. There was undoubtedly some importation of used clothing before this time, but it was from the mid-1980s that the large-scale importation of oboroni wawu became a major issue in the media and talking point in everyday conversation, as well as a socio-economic concern of the government.
Attitudes towards the importation of used clothing were mixed. Many people felt it was a disgrace to wear other people’s cast offs and to burden their children with the obligation to pay off loans that would extend far beyond the useful life of the clothing. The government regretted the demise of the local textile and clothing industries and the loss of employment that resulted. Meetings were held to determine if import restrictions should be imposed but this policy was rejected because it would have raised the cost of living, provoked social unrest and broken the free trade agreement with the IMF. Government ministers agreed that everybody depended on oboroni wawu, themselves included.
In this era of free trade, importation was in the hands of traders who brought into Ghana the cheapest goods available irrespective of quality. Most of the newly manufactured goods came from China but the used clothing came from Great Britain and other European countries. It arrived at the port of Tema, 30 km east of the capital, Accra, in large cloth-bound bales of about two metres in diameter. The goods were cleared by the importers and transported to markets in the major cities and regional capitals.
To be present at the opening of the bales was to witness a social phenomenon of considerable interest. The women traders who retailed the goods to the general public mostly specialised in one line of clothing: men’s shirts, tee shirts, trousers, ladies’ dresses, underwear, etc. Each was anxious to obtain the best specimens available: least worn, latest fashion, best quality. So when the bales of randomly mixed goods were opened there was a rugby scrum of activity that threatened to erupt into open warfare. Violence seemed to be limited only by a universal realisation that a badly torn shirt could be sold by no one, but this convention did not prevent some sturdier items being subjected to a spirited tug-of-war.
After the scramble for the goods came the haggling over price but here the bale owner exercised almost dictatorial power. Prices were necessarily arbitrary but experience brought a degree of standardisation to commonly traded items. The system was familiar to all participants and operated steadily over the next decade. There were too many vested interests at all levels for any fundamental change.
Only increasing prosperity can bring an end to oboroni wawu. In the twenty first century, with Ghana rising to lower middle income status, people may be able to afford more of the products of an emerging fashion trade supported by local textile industries, processing Ghanaian cotton and embracing the relatively new craft skills of tie-dye and batik. Hopefully, a sufficient number of the tailors and seamstresses of the 1970s have survived to pass on their skills to a generation that must produce the wealth to repay the loans of the 1980s.