In the most unlikely of places, on a Saturday morning, I’m strolling through a market, browsing through heaps of second-hand clothes. The air is warm and damp and the local language I have yet to learn, flows through the chaos and breathes life into everything. Since I can’t speak the vernacular I cannot find out where the nearest air-conditioned restaurant might be, and it serves me right, because this is no time or place to be fussy.
Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? Yet, if the metaphorical camera were to zoom out, from where I’m standing, the market around me would become a tiny, unassuming speck in the north of Namibia. This is Ondangwa, and this Open Market (like so many in these parts of the country) is the heartbeat of the town. Locals shop here, socialise and eat here. As for me, I’m thrifting. Cape Town’s second-hand clothing scene could never have prepared me for this shopping experience. Knee-high piles of sweaters, jeans, blouses and jackets line the floor. Rails of clothing display the shop owners’ pick of the day, often inspired by the season. It’s monumental and quite intimidating. The only way to approach it is to roll your sleeves up and start digging. You might just find an authentic leather jacket and buy it without hesitation, because who would hesitate at only N$150?
The clothes that have accumulated here are, first and foremost, a result of fast fashion consumerism. In the United States, 64% of the 32 billion garments produced annually end up in landfills, literally thrown in the trash because the trend has blown over and the next best thing is on the rack, under fluorescent lighting, in a mega-mall shop. While fast fashion continues to fill rubbish dumps, those individuals who have a little more discretion, opt to donate their unwanted clothes to textile recyclers. The cycle continues as the recycler’s unwanted items are packaged into bales divided into gender, age and season, sold by weight and shipped to Africa. This is how many women across the continent earn an income: re-selling donated clothing in informal markets, everyday of the week from roughly 9 to 5.
It is not the glamorous kind of thrifting experience. Where you browse through a curated handful of items, scarcely displayed in a shop kept by a hipster playing Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo (brownie points for vinyl). If you have not heard it yet, let me be the first to say: those kinds of shops are overpriced, overrated and completely miss the point of thrifting (I am talking about thrift shops, not vintage, which are in a league of their own). Just because the label says something important, does not overshadow the fact that this same item was once unwanted and forgotten. One man’s trash for the price of a treasure? Hell no, you can find me in the open market, scavenging for bargains.
Around 9:30 on this particular Saturday morning the market is quiet. Shopkeepers gradually uncover their square metre of thrift-shop. These “shops” predominantly consist of a bedsheet or plastic groundsheet spread out on the floor, with four or five categorised piles of clothes on top, the corners of the sheet kept down by decommissioned bricks and rocks (be warned, these are a tripping hazard). There is almost always a rail of some sorts, be it makeshift from the open-plan steel structures that shelter the market, or an actual free-standing one, exclusively showcasing calf-length puffer coats. The people who sell clothes here everyday have been doing so for many, many years. Most of them are eager business women with an eye for fashion, some “shops” are better than others. The best ones have a niche they cater to. The shop where I bought Asham’s denim skirt specialises in denim skirts and trousers, and puffer-vests. Ronny’s green blouse is from a rail of hundreds of flowy blouses, amongst them one black number labelled Michael Kors.
While at face value these clothing drops appear to be a gift to our society, the long-term effects are proving to be precisely the opposite. Selling second-hand clothes for cheap in less developed countries is a great alternative to landfills, but the uncontrolled masses, the cathartic shift of responsibility inevitably becomes Africa’s burden. Indigenous markets have become less favoured as a result, and countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are working to ban the import of used clothes and shoes in an effort to protect local businesses and prevent clothes from inevitably ending up in African landfills.
This beckons the question: if the unwanted garments of the global West can’t be dumped in Africa, they’ll surely head right back to being dumped in landfills. Reality is, in these parts of Namibia, international franchises that are supplied directly by the fast fashion industry, have a hold on local populations. If someone has money to spend, they’ll go to Ackermans or Tekkie Town, not the open market. I reckon it’s time that changes. The second-hand clothing department of the Ondangwa Open Market directly benefits at least 30 shop-owners, women and members of the community, who are oftentimes breadwinners for their families. While the massive, franchise-filled mall just down the road signifies a sense of development, it’s the open market that truly benefits the local economy. That allows 30-odd women in Ondangwa to earn an income. And simultaneously throws a fat middle finger in revolt of the fast fashion industry.
That’s what thrifting is about.
This photoshoot is a collaboration between the FlyNamibia Magazine content team, Anna Beauty Creations, Asham and Ronny. The models were scouted through a search on social media. Asham and Ronny are Ondangwa locals, for both it was their first-ever professional photoshoot and feature in a magazine. Wardrobe for the shoot was purchased at Ondangwa Open Market on a budget of N$250 per outfit. The four complete outfits featured here ended up costing less than N$180 each.
Photographer: Le Roux van Schalkwyk @lerouxvs
Hair and makeup: Anna Ashipala @annabeautycreations
Creative direction & styling: Charene Labuschagne @charene_labuschagne
Models: Asham John & Ronny Awaseb
Details of clothing:
70s swirl blouse worn by Asham – this one still had its original price tag on
Denim t-length skirt – fit Asham right down to the centimetre
Leather woven shopper bag – labelled DKNY
Light pink tulle skirt – elastic waist is still super sturdy
Real leather jacket circa the 80s – heavily worn, but in a cool way
Orange wool sweater-vest – undoubtedly handmade and matched the jacket perfectly
Authentic Gap 1969 corduroy jeans worn by Ronny – feels hardly worn
Shiny forest green blouse worn by Ronny – cost only N$30
Knitted cardigan with geometric print – fully lined and in great condition
Ski/tracksuit jackets – in remarkable condition circa the 80s
Shoes and accessories – model’s own