When we piled all the discards in one place, we had what amounted to seven large shopping bags of clothes, two boxes of shoes and a yard bag of miscellaneous items.
This is the dead Toubab pile: not a term known to most in our society. We learned about the Toubab pile from our daughter who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. She lived in a remote village — where I once paid her a visit — on the edge of the Sahel and was given the African name Mariama. There was electricity in only a few of the elders’ houses, fueled by generators; water was drawn from common wells; and, nearly every house was made of millet stalks and built on a dirt floor. A former French colony, Senegal’s language of commerce and government is French, but each region has its own distinct languages and ethnic groups. For our daughter, the language was Wolof, and the Wolof term for a white person is Toubab.
As you can imagine, this is an economy of scarcity. Food is precious and largely locally grown or sourced; water is a precious commodity and its drawing occupies a large part of the women’s time; and, there is precious little money for clothing. All three of these needs are precious, and the first two of them are essential to life.
West Africa is rich in traditional textile designs which, over the decades, have been manufactured increasingly within its own borders, a good thing. Still, new clothes are well beyond the reach of most inhabitants of Yassy village. Moreover, Western clothing is a sign of status. While these proud people cherish their heritage, they also want to be part of the modern world.
Throughout much of Africa and the developing world, clothing is imported in large bales. These clothes are the castoffs of Western societies. They are pulled together by commercial jobbers, in our case in the US, and shipped in bulk to developing and third world nations. Much of the clothing has already passed through several handlers. The best items are isolated at the beginning, and the remainder are bundled for shipment overseas or sold for scrap. These bales land in local markets, where the clothes are sold to the inhabitants. If you have traveled overseas and wondered how your favorite team, local church or alma mater tee shirts came to be sported on the streets in Africa and South America, this is a likely answer.
When Mariama’s villagers were queried about their Western clothes, she learned that they came from the Dead Toubab Pile. Senegalese and West Africans in general can not believe that any live person would give away clothing in such good condition, so they speculate that all these clothes must come from dead Westerners. Wolof people also call these the “Fuggi Jaay” which translates as the “shake and sell,” because the vendors shake the clothing in front of you as you walk through the markets.
So: our Dead Toubab Pile and what to do with it.
Likely we have all sent things to the Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or other charities or dropped them in clothing drop-off sheds. Let’s just be done with them, we say. Here’s what I have concluded.
In our small rural community, there is a great need for reasonably priced clothing and household items. The local Council of Churches operates the Once Again Shoppe, a true service to the community not only for the goods it makes available to local residents but also for the ways in which it uses the proceeds from their sales for other projects and causes. In fact, all segments of our community, whether year-rounders, seasonal cottage owners or vacationers, patronize the Once Again Shoppe: it has wonderful items and they are reasonably priced, so you can outfit your cottage for a pittance.
We also have commercial drop-off sheds in the area. Most of them support local causes through contributions from some portion of their proceeds which is commendable. Still, I like to know that my community is getting the most bang for the buck from my cast-offs. So, I take our excess to the Once Again Shoppe. The staff will not find every item worthy, but they will make the first sort. If they can’t use it, it will be sent on and ultimately land in a jobber’s bale or a rag pile. The important thing to me is that my local community, which needs these contributions for our citizens and the work of the institutions, gets first chance.
This part of my journey through the Stuff has been a time to reflect on scarcity and excess, thanks in large measure to Mariama and my visit to her village. While working to minimize, I have been struck by how much I have that is not essential and by how many others’ needs are satisfied only with great sacrifice, if at all.
Now, it’s time to start going through all those books in order to benefit the local library’s book sale. Opportunities abound.