On Location_ Kantamanto

The following photographs were taken by Umu, Fadila, and Rafatu, young kayayei working as porters in Accra’s Kantamanto second-hand market, the largest in West Africa. The three women began studying photography in February 2021 as part of The OR Foundation’s ongoing Storytelling Workshop.

On Location_ Kantamanto

Fifteen million pre-owned garments arrive each week in Accra, the capital of Ghana, at Kantamanto, the largest second-hand clothing market in West Africa, and possibly the world. The garments that land here from the Global North are cast-offs — donations, deadstock, mistaken purchases, unwanted gifts, returns that were never re-stocked, or unsold items from various resale platforms. But to describe Kantamanto as only a second-hand market does not paint a complete picture; the market is also the primary fashion destination for many Ghanaians. It is a multifaceted place to shop, to source material for various creative projects, and to socialize with friends. It is also the workplace for roughly 30,000 people who resell, repair, and upcycle clothes. All this is made possible by the labor of girls and women known as kayayei.

Kayayei is a term that translates to “women who carry the burden,” and that is exactly what their work entails. These women, some as young as eight years old, transport 120-lb bales of second-hand clothing from importers to retailers, from retailers to other retailers, from retailers to burn piles or dumpsites, and everywhere in between. It’s always back-breaking labor, but at times it is also fatal. Weaving in and out of the market, often with a baby wrapped to her back, a kayayo earns barely enough to pay for basic necessities. The collective labor power of the kayayei is absolutely necessary to recirculate the millions of garments donated by well-intentioned people from the Global North. Most of us, however, never consider that such labor exists, let alone that it might be exploitative.

For centuries labor activists have campaigned against human rights abuses in the production of new clothing, from abolitionists and union organizers to todays’ Fashion Revolution and PayUp movements. This important work has raised awareness of first-hand supply chain issues and led many people to shop for second-hand clothing as a way to absolve themselves of the shame they feel around their consumption habits. We absolutely encourage people to shop secondhand if there is a need to replenish one’s wardrobe, but we also believe there is cause to be aware of the complexities inherent in the search for panaceas. When the whole industry is built on inequality and the devaluation of people and the planet, secondhand is not a utopia operating outside of these patterns. Rather, today’s second-hand economy exists because of exploitative practices within the industry that produce the excess that fuels second-hand trade. We shouldn’t be surprised therefore that the second-hand supply chain also relies on exploitative practices to operate at the scale and pace of an excessive first-hand industry.

If we want the circular economy to be different from the exploitative linear industry of today, we will need to take action to make it so. This begins with prioritizing the wellbeing of those who have carried the burden of fashion’s linear economy far too long.

The following photographs were taken by Umu, Fadila, and Rafatu, three young women working as kayayei in Kantamanto and surrounding markets. These three began studying photography in February of 2021 as part of The OR Foundation’s ongoing Storytelling Workshop. Their images represent the many sides of Kantamanto.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE OR FOUNDATION AT THEOR.ORG

Retailer Abena Kubuwa sells second-hand dresses imported from China and Korea
A tailor resizes large shorts from Canada and the United States to fit a younger customer
A retailer, who sells third selection tops from multiple countries, waits patiently for customers

Retailer Janet Ankomah sells school uniforms made of fabric imported from the United Kingdom

Related Stories