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Our Foreign Correspondent 

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
The handsome young man, who gives his name as Michael, is wearing a University of San Francisco Ski and Snowboard Club T-shirt. The back of the black shirt shows the silhouettes of a skier and a snowboarder catching air above the motto "Party it up, ride it down." You may think there's nothing very surprising in that, but this 24-year-old is not at USF. Indeed, he's not even American, has never seen snow, and isn't entirely sure of San Francisco's location.

Michael is from the East African country of Uganda, and lives in a suburb of its capital city, Kampala, less than a quarter of a mile from Lake Victoria. He, like most Ugandans, wears imported secondhand clothes, as do many people in poor Third World countries. Used shirts, blouses, trousers, caps, and other clothing (known locally as mivumba) reach Uganda in huge bales from various developed countries such as the United States, Canada, and the U.K. Michael bought his University of San Francisco Ski and Snowboard Club T-shirt for 2,500 Ugandan shillings (around $1.25) in Owino Market, the main market for mivumba in Kampala.

The reason that Michael has never seen snow is that Kampala is 50 miles from the equator. But there is snow in Uganda — for example, on the Rwenzori Mountains in the west of the country, and on Mount Elgon on the border with Kenya in the east. (Uganda is a big country, about the size of Michigan.)

It is perhaps a little unsettling to see the First World's castoffs being worn by the poor in the Third World. On the other hand, in these environmentally conscious times, this flow of secondhand clothes can be viewed as an important form of recycling.

Every now and again there are calls in the Ugandan media for banning imports of secondhand clothes. Such a ban, it is claimed, would promote the development of homegrown textile industries and enhance economic growth. But this would not have the support of most Ugandans, who prefer the thrift and variety of styles and fashions provided by the imports over expensive, brand-new clothes.

Michael, who is currently unemployed, has had more education than most Ugandans — he reached the third year of secondary school, and then did a two-year vocational certificate in carpentry. His income is limited, but he tries to dress as smartly as possible. Although he knows little about its origins, he wears his University of San Francisco Ski and Snowboard Club T-shirt with pride.

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