liberian girls and boys – have better vintage t-shirts than you

January 5, 2011

VBS.TV recently visited Monrovia, Liberia, where we made a film with three warlords called General Bin Laden, General Rambo and General Butt Naked. During our week there we filmed in the slums, on top of burned-out banks that have become squats, in graveyards that ex-child soldiers use to sleep in at night and, ill-advisedly, at midnight in the gnarliest brothel in the worst slum in the city. We noticed how everybody there looked like they’d been getting their clothes from vintage stores on eBay.

Liberian girls and boys – have better vintage t-shirts than you
MYLES ESTEY & ANDY CAPPER for Viceland.com

“How weird,” I said. “We’re in a country where only one-fifth of people have electricity or running water and there’s a kid with a vintage Exploited shirt that somebody in LA currently lists for £200 on eBay so a stylist can put an MTV emo-rock band in it for an awards ceremony.”

Just as those words left my lips, our fixer there, a Canadian journalist called Myles Estey, interrupted me with a sigh, and explained where all these shirts are coming from. What you are about to read is that explanation in written-down form.

Supply and demand comes with completely different connotations in Liberia. Demand does not control the goods supplied; it’s the other way around.

Clothing exemplifies this inverted chain. Liberia’s struggling economy does not have enough buying power to dictate what comes into one of the most import-dependent countries in the world. Its war-destroyed infrastructure means there’s very little domestic production of anything.

Some new clothes do make it into the country. But outside the cheap Chinese kitsch sold in the potholed and rubbish-strewn Waterside Market, most new clothing is far outside the affordability of the average Liberian; as many as 60 percent of the country are said to live on a dollar a day.

So, demand creates a different supply chain where low cost is the trump. Donations from the US and the wholesale purchase of massive amounts of used clothes fill hundreds of sea cans with clothing no longer wanted by Americans. These end up all over Africa, but Monrovia—the capital city of a country built by freed slaves of the 19th century in the image of the United States—receives a high proportion of used American garb.

It’s these packed sea cans that set the parameters of style. Trends get set by what shows up in the shipping containers, not the other way around. For example, around Christmas last year, a multi-colour striped t-shirt made of cheap cloth could be found for about 80 cents anywhere in the country. It’s near impossible to pass a day without seeing the “Be the Reds” shirt, produced by the millions to promote South Korea’s football team as they hosted the 2002 World Cup. And sometime in the spring, a wave of cheap top hats showed up on the street, starting a trend for young men on the streets of the capital.

But these identifiable shipments are dwarfed by the mixed assortments of used digs that decorate pedestrians along the streets. The variation and contrasts can be truly spectacular.

Boiled-peanut sellers in “Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore” shirts. Ex-child soldiers with rippling muscles sporting white “Tickle me Elmo” shirts or black t-shirts adorned with a giant pink Barbie doll. Shockingly beautiful women in baggy shirts with a stupid logo aimed at lame American male middle-agers: “It’s Not a Bald Patch… It’s a Solar Panel for Love”. Old women in yellow shirts bearing the classic DIY stencilling “Rock Out With Your Cock Out”.

No trace of irony can be found. In fact, what the t-shirt actually says is generally ignored by the buyer in favour of size, colour, shirt quality, and personal perception of the design.

Rusty wheelbarrows stuffed with shirts serve as the shopping centres for these items. These sellers can be found pacing the city’s streets, or they line the shirts in rows in busy areas, markets and roadsides, selling them for around two bucks each, often with a small crowd hovered around, finding the right mix of ingredients to bargain for a purchase. The US$2 price tag is a large investment for many Liberians.

Shirts live hard lives here. Most people have small wardrobes and so the shirts are worn repeatedly under the sweat, sun and humidity of equatorial Africa. Liberian kids are the last stop on this international hand-me-down chain. They wear shirts outgrown by older siblings, cousins and neighbours, often until ripped and dirty beyond recognition.

Even so, no one bitches that their shirt is not the newest, not the coolest, not the right colour, and certainly that it’s not the right brand name—although these were most likely the reasons the shirts were given up in the first place. In Liberia, few kids have any clue of the disparity of privilege between themselves and those who tossed the shirt into a donation bin a million miles away.