Hello from Accra! Welcome to the first edition of Nea 3ka Y’akoma, a newsletter that we aim to send to you on the first Sunday of every month.
The name Nea 3ka Y’akoma means “What Moves Us” in Twi. We’re so grateful for all of the support that you have offered from all over the world and we want to keep you more up to speed on what we do and what keeps us going. We hope you can find inspiration in these stories and we invite you to participate in the community activities, participatory research and citizen science projects that we plan to build into this newsletter.
We are also launching a monthly Instagram Live series called “We Just Kant” on the first Monday of every month (i.e. tomorrow, Feb. 7th) at 5pm GMT. We hope to see you there!
Our first newsletter is written by Sammy Oteng, Community Engagement + No More Fast Fashion Lab Manager here at The Or Foundation. Sammy spends nearly every day in Kantamanto, working alongside retailers and re-manufacturers to gather the facts of the present and visions for the future.
I keep revisiting a feeling. It’s hard to describe.
In November, we began the new round of Waste Characterization and Data Analysis in Kantamanto. This ongoing survey digs into the nuances of fiber composition and allows us to deeply understand the nature of Kantamanto’s waste stream. Collecting such data involves sitting (usually not on chairs but on large sacks and heaps of secondhand clothing waste) with Kantamanto’s secondhand clothing retailers in their stalls, inspecting one-by-one each of the garments they consider waste, checking the garment tags, noting any other key characteristics, and tallying up a count of the different data points. For example, our initial findings suggest that while 100% polyester garments represent just over 11% of the waste-stream, garments blended with polyester represent an additional 19%, and around 14% of the total garments going to waste do not have labels representing fiber type. That’s likely over 600,000 garments per week that are going to waste without fiber type labels.
On one of these surveys we met Naomi, a retailer who has been working in Kantamanto the past 20 years. Naomi was so welcoming and wore the most infectious smile. As we carried on with the waste data analysis, inspecting garment after garment, we began to realize that the entire bale of clothes was heavily stained with what looked like oil or some sort of chemical. This meant a total loss for Naomi.
Now for context, Naomi was a victim of the Kantamanto fire outbreak in December of 2020 and it took her close to a year to pay off debts and recoup her losses from the fire. That one bad bale could have been the collapse of Naomi’s work and ultimately the end of her and her family’s livelihood. But she was still smiling so broadly and actively trying to assist us with the survey.
I froze for a minute trying to understand how anyone could be so humane in such a situation. I paused to ask her, how?! Her response, “W’any3 no saa a, Ewiase ny3 d3,” meaning “without kindness, the world will not be sweet.”
A week or so later, I met Abena Borla, who has been retailing pyjamas for about five years. Abena was not ready for a survey, but she offered me a seat to take a break, as evidently I needed it. I asked about her name, “Borla”, which means trash in Twi. She went on to explain that she was given that name by other retailers in the market because continuously for about two years most of her bales were so bad that they barely had any saleable value. This was not a funny story, but she told it with so much humour and drama that I teared up laughing. As I wiped the sweat and tears from laughter off my face with a piece of pyjama hem Abena had cut for me to use as a hanky, the tragedy of the situation suddenly hit me. This was not a funny story at all. Abena told it jovially because she is of a spirit to rise above the sadness, but the story she was telling was how she is entrapped in a debt cycle. The story she was telling means that until she pays off her debt, profit is not a thing she can even discuss. It means that six days a week, for as far as she can see into the future, Abena will be labouring not for herself or for her family, but for fast fashion companies, cleaning up their waste, their mess. And here I was sitting in her stall, humbled by her generosity and kindness.
Throughout our work we have seen the relationship between debt and waste grow more profound. To gain further insight into how debt affects the market, we also collect data on retailers' expenses and current level of debt. In tandem with our ongoing work gathering waste data, we survey retailers about any expense they bear in the recirculation of secondhand clothes. As part of our survey effort I went over to Rose, a retailer who collaborated on our Secondhand Speculation art installation project in October, to inquire about her expenses. Rose, just like Naomi, had suffered major losses from the fire outbreak a year ago. To keep her work and her livelihood running after the fire, she was forced to invest the money she had been saving for years to support her daughter’s school tuition back into the secondhand trade with hopes of making returns off of it. Unfortunately a set of bad bales she had bought that week totally disrupted her progress. Her work, her daughter’s education and everything in her life was on the line. She was now deeply in debt, with no way to pay it off, and no money to support her daughter. Debt collectors had just visited her demanding repayment, and she was in tears as she spoke to me about these challenges, opening up about depressive episodes and all the moments she has experienced suicidal ideations since entering the trade. I was so glad she felt comfortable sharing her struggles with me, but I was again humbled by the challenges she faces. For Rose there is no line between her personal life and her work life. Whatever struggle she has to deal with in her work recirculating secondhand clothing is ultimately mirrored in her life at home and in the lives of her loved ones.
I walked out of Kantamanto that day not sure how to make sense of all that I was feeling. How do they have the energy to come back and face another day? How do they show me generosity and greet friends with a smile? I wondered if I have what it takes to overcome and to keep working in the face of such struggles, as Abena, Naomi and Rose do. And as I thought about all their humbling perseverance, I began to connect their stories, and the stories of all the other retailers who have shared similar struggles. Just because they can smile and laugh does not mean they are numb to the setbacks they face. They feel every burn. It is their reality. But true resilience is what makes these women. True resilience is what makes Kantamanto. Through a daily life operating at the capacity of toughness, someway, somehow, with all of its resilience the Kantamanto community still stays in touch with kindness. Because “without kindness the world will not be sweet.”
And thanks to the kindness of our community rallying to support Kantamanto through the Secondhand Solidarity Fund, we’ve been able to support Naomi by paying off the debt of her bad bale and we have ensured that Rose can still support her daughter’s tuition. This is what moves us forward – the kindness of community.
Until next time, smile!