The recently demolished Tejuosho Market in Lagos, Nigeria, had a part that was devoted almost entirely to the trade in second-hand clothing. In the mid-nineties, I lived somewhere close to the market, and each time I left the house to take a bus at the Yaba central motor park I walked past stalls filled with second-hand clothes. Traders who hawked their wares on the road would usually call on passers-by to patronise them. The range of items in the market ranged from Armani suits to brassiere, from neck ties to blue jeans, from Hugo Boss long sleeve shirts to Gap T-shirts, from men’s underpants to ladies’ slips, and from jackboots to office shoes. There were even the odd winter jackets.
I was about 16 years old then, and it was about the first time that I really thought about second-hand clothing. I had been wearing second-hand clothes before then, but it was a particular episode that made me realise how much it was sewn into the imagination of many everyday Nigerians. A boy who was about eight years old walked into the living room of their house and said:
‘I can smell something new! Did mummy buy some new clothes?’
Everybody is probably familiar with the smell of new textile fabric; used-clothes too have their own peculiar odour. People said that it was the smell of the chemical that was used in washing them before they were packed up and shipped to Nigeria. That was the smell the boy perceived, and that was the smell he thought was the smell of new fabric. Of course, now, thinking about it, it was certainly new, only that it was a different type of new. For the boy, and for so many other people, it was simply new clothes; clothes that started a whole new life with them. One could of course start a whole discussion about values and commodities and what is new and what is not, but what my 16 year-old self found disturbing was that the boy was so used to new cloth smelling like second-hand cloths that it was what was new to him. I think I found it disturbing because most often, using second-hand clothes was linked to poverty. I learnt better some years later.
The general name for second-hand clothing in Nigeria is okrika. The name was derived from the name of a small port town close to the more famous Port-Harcourt, in the now infamous Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. According to old-time second-hand clothes traders, that was the port through which used clothing was first imported into Nigeria, and the people of Okrika were the first to start consuming second-hand clothing, largely because that was where it was first imported. So, the name okrika stuck, and it is still the general name used to refer to second-hand clothes in Nigeria.
But there are other names too. One of them – bo si corner – is a mixture of Yoruba and English, which means, ‘go to a corner’. Buying used clothing was supposed to be a shameful thing so one only bought it in a ‘corner’, where nobody could see one. Another popular Yoruba word is wo o wo, which means ‘try it on’. Normally, shops that sold new items of clothing are reluctant to permit potential buyers to try them on; second-hand clothes traders actually encouraged their customers to try them on, while they continued haggling on the price. Another term that is used in describing second-hand clothing is ‘bend-down boutique’. Many of the traders in the market had the pieces of clothing on a huge pile through which one could rummage, looking for a piece of clothing that might catch ones attention. Once an item is picked up the haggling process starts. (The Zambians call them Salaula, the Bemba term that means ‘to rummage through a pile’ – Karen Tranberg Hansen
In some cases, one does not need to bend down to check them out because some traders ‘add value’ to the items they sell by taking time to launder them, starch them, iron them and display them on hangers at their stalls. The prices of those are higher, but they are also easier to inspect so the potential buyer does not have to take the time to rummage through a pile on the ground.
In university I realised that many of the campus ‘big boys’ got their Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Versace etc. attires from some students who would go to the used clothing market to make special selections. The student-traders would pay a certain amount of money for the privilege of being the ones who make the first pick from freshly opened bales. (The clothes are packed in bales of about 55kg for exportation in the source countries). They would then take the clothes home to wash in order to get rid of some of the distinctive second-hand clothing smell, before they are sold to the ‘big boys’. Most of those who consume the higher-end products know that the items are ‘okrika’, but a popular way they justified using them was by saying that most of the new brand-names that are available in the market are in fact fake. They would fall apart after just a few washes. But one could be sure that the okrika brand-names are in fact the real deal because one was sure that they were ‘imported’ from Europe. That is actually a reason many people give for buying second-hand clothing. They are the authentic ones, not the China-made that are of much lower quality, and that are sometimes even cheaper than the second-hand ones.
All this happen in a country that bans the importation of second-hand clothing. Most people have no idea that second-hand clothing is actually not allowed into Nigeria. One of the main things I am trying to do in my dissertation is to show how second-hand clothes get to Nigeria from the source countries in Europe and North America.