We call them secondhand clothes, hand-me downs, or more likely donations. Doesn't matter what you call them, all will be processed in the same way and wind up in ports throughout the developing world where entrepeneurial women will buy bales and take them back to their villages and cities to sell on streets or in markets. Once in the Haitian markets, they become kennedys, dead men's clothes, or more generically, pepe (used merchandise). In much of the developing world, second hand clothes have become the national dress. Shell and Bertozzi explores the pepe phenomena in a documentary called "Secondhand."
The documentary consists of a radio broadcast interwoven with images of Haiti and interviews with Haitians about the omnipresent pepe clothing. It is short, interesting, and does raise some broader questions about cultural identity in a globalizing world.
As Peace Corps Volunteers in Haiti, it was indeed all Pepe all the time. With enough patience, you could find anything - some perfectly nice, some ridiculous, all very cheap. You had to know where to look, had to be a patient bargainer, and a little bit of luck never hurt as well.
Sky blue suits, 7-11 shirts, UPS delivery outfit, a policeman's uniform, halloween costumes, and scores of t-shirts that have gone out of fashion - bands that are no longer fashionable (think Winger), mottos that have gone out of style (think No Fear), sports teams that no longer play as they once did (sorry Detroit). If the writing on the shirts is in English, most people did not know what it said - hence the Baptist preacher with the "Co-ed Naked Wrestling" t-shirt, the Haitian on the street with the "Kiss me, Im Italian" shirt, or the young boy with a shirt that says "Daddy's Little Girl". They were a constant source of levity.
With pepe being so plentiful and so inexpensive, domestic demand for locally produced clothing is very small indeed, with the exception being for school uniforms. Although all Haitian children are (on paper) guaranted a free education, no uniform means no school. Yet other than school uniforms there remains very little use for professional tailors - unless as with one woman in the documentary, adjustments are needed for pepe that one has bought. A shame given some of the excellent worksmanship that Haitian tailors are capable of.
At the end of the day, though it is up the individual consumer to decide what is more important -supporting a national industry or having extra gourdes in one's pocket. It is like voting with one's wallet and Pepe, ever the populist, has won in a landslide.
It makes me think of rice and the Artibonite Valley. In this part of Haiti, rice can be grown well, not efficiently, but well. If there were enough demand, production could be scaled up. Yet, for all my time in Haiti it is unlikely that I ever ate a bowl of Haitian rice. Walk to the market (any market) and you will see rice from Argentina, Japan, the United States, and any other number of countries - all much cheaper than what can be produced nationally. If I were Haitian, I would probably buy the imported rice even if I felt guily about it - just like the scores and scores of Americans who shop at Wal Mart every day. Like them, we have also voted with our wallets - but for goods largely produced in China this time.
This clip brought back memories for me, of endless hours sifting through bales of clothes on plastic sheets in bustling and hot markets, amdist goats and vegetable stalls, looking for the choicest pepe that Thomonde had to offer. Some of it I still have today! If you enjoyed the clip, you can view the entire documentary by clicking here. Credits available here.
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