Africa · Madagascar · The Nomadic Life

Shopping for Second-hand Clothing in Madagascar’s Markets

“This,” I thought as I tugged at the bright, tacky-but-could-be-cool fabric from a tangled pile of frip (used clothes), “is clearly where fat clothes come to die.” Giggling since the piece that had caught my attention turned out to be a pair of shorts double the width of my waist – an “XXL” still on their faded value village price tag – and tossed it back into the pile.

From the other side of the low, makeshift table and plastic awning, the vendor registered my interest in her small mountain of goods and began unearthing more gaudy-fat shorts and placing them in front of me. “This one is good… une mille,” she said in a Malagasy-French hybrid typical in bigger cities. “Ngeza be! It’s huge!” I responded, holding the shorts to myself.

Ngeza be!” she repeated quietly while chuckling to herself, apparently more amused at a foreigner speaking Malagasy than the actual meaning of the words.

I smiled, made some small talk, and continued to sift. While sorting through various frip that are as much a staple of a Malagasy market as the rows of women with woven baskets full of rice, bananas, or hog-tied chickens, I feel like a treasure-hunter or archaeologist. Most specifically, examining the hodge-podge of fashion tossed out by trend obsessed Americans, French, Koreans, and who knows who else reminds me of the garbage archaeologist of Arizona – digging up information on the modern American’s lifestyle habits by taking note of what they put out on the curb each week.

Hidden in the depths of those street-side piles of cotton, polyester, and spandex, are the sequined, child-sized princess dresses and Halloween witch costumes worn briefly by American kindergarteners before hopping from attic box to thrift store to cargo freight bound for Madagascar. Relics of phases – fat phases, neon-spandex clad aerobic phases, pregnant phases, Hot-Topic inspired Goth phases – and the items simply too-awful-even-for-Value-Village get their last shot at a new owner in the open-air markets of third-world Africa. And while a few seriously amazing pieces are always buried among stretched maternity pants and flashback-to-the-80s-vests, sometimes I wonder if only vahazas (foreigners) can see how weird this stuff is. Or weirder, the 4-year-old-boys with snot running down their faces wearing the polyester princess dress, the ubiquitous Santa cap in the chilly highland Julys, or the grandmotherly old women wearing chuck-high-tops or bondage pants, completely oblivious to the social symbol they hold on the other side of the world. I’m still waiting to find something tossed from my own transient wardrobe among the lot.

A brilliant turquoise catches my eye. I tug on it and out emerges a cheap, vintage-inspired cotton dress with black trim. “How much?” I ask. “One thousand Ariary,” she demands. I begin to haggle, but she cuts me off “prix fixe,” she says. I can’t help but feel I’m being lied to, ripped off, but like the dress too much to care. So I hand over a crisp, purple 1000 Ariary bill – the equivalent of 50 cents – nod my thanks and continue along the dusty market.

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