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Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa. Or Maybe Do Send Them.

*UPDATE in October, 2017, the New York Times published: For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports

Yup.

On a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenya small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave him her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought an amazing dress.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations. This debate was raging around our lunch table recently (because even among those doing aid and development work, even in my own family, we don’t all agree).

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa?

who died used clothes(This is a ‘who-died,’ a pile of used clothing in the market in Djibouti. Who-died as in, ‘who died and sent us these clothes?’ Clothes here are often worn until they are completely worn out, the idea that people would give perfectly good clothes while they are still alive is a foreign concept.)

What are some of the problems with sending used things to this side of the world?

  1. About those TOMS“A 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes
  2. Some of the shoes and clothes that land here are not just used, they are trash. Torn, stained, faded. It is embarrassing, to the point of feeling ashamed, to dig through boxes of donations sent to the running team in Djibouti. When people send their garbage, it makes those on the receiving end feel like garbage. Would you wear a bra with two different sized cups? Underwear with one leg stretched so big it sags and the other is tight? A t-shirt with a crooked hem or uneven sleeves?
  3. There are wealthy, well-clothed people in Africa. To be specific, there are wealthy, well-clothed people on my block in Djibouti. There is also a large number of poor families, including a little boy who runs in our street with no pants and no underwear, just a long t-shirt. Lucy and I have a pair of shorts on our front table, waiting for the next time he comes around. Local people, and I include myself while we live here, need to rise up and get involved in our own communities. Outsiders sending free things undermines that by giving local people, from the neighborhood level to top government levels, excuses.
  4. When it comes to running shoes, they have already seen hundreds of miles. You stopped wearing them because they are too old and could cause an injury. It is not any different for an African athlete.
  5. Sending shoes does not solve the underlying problem of shoelessness, which is poverty. Job creation and economic growth will address poverty. Sending shoes undermines the jobs of shoe makers and shoe sellers.
  6. Sending shoes costs money. Why not donate that money to a job-creating charity or a local initiative who could purchase shoes locally?
  7. Studies have found that doing one perceived good deed can contribute to a failure to do another. So doing the easy and anonymous, faceless act of donating used clothing might mean a person is less inclined to get involved in an actual person-to-person interaction that could meet a real and pressing need.
  8. Ways of giving that promote trendy consumerism, like TOMS, that offer a buy one, give one incentive are more about the consumer than the receiver. “So next time you’re faced with buying some slick $200 Armani shades (whose parent company gives a MASSIVE 1% of its total revenue to the Global Fund) why not grab a $20 pair and donate $180 to something worthwhile on the ground.” Craig Greensfield
  9. Donating can feel good, can be helpful, but it can also promote a savior complex. Pippa Biddle
  10. The idea that you can simply donate used clothing to Africa allows the endless consumption of goods in wealthy nations to run on, unabated. Why not buy a new wardrobe every season? Surely some naked kid in Africa can use these out-of-fashion clothes. This is harmful for the environment, damaging to our souls that turn to consuming as religion, and it promotes a wasteful mentality. If all that used clothing wound up in American garbage dumps instead of African markets or African garbage dumps, Americans might start to reconsider the need to constantly purchase new items.

All that being said, I do think there is a place for donations in the world of development and I think a generous, giving spirit is a commendable, spiritual, and beautiful character trait. We are often on the receiving end of incredibly generous donations – from money to books to shoes to school supplies to soccer balls…for which we are grateful and the things go to really good use. I would rather have our girls run in gently used shoes than get thorns in their feet, for example. I will not tell people to stop donating but I will make some recommendations on how to be smart about it.

How can you be wise and generous?

  1. Don’t send your trash.
  2. Don’t donate with the idea that it will save the world. That’s not your job and it won’t be accomplished with a t-shirt anyway.
  3. Don’t send it in ignorance, thinking the continent is filled with naked people. Do a little research, learn about where you are sending your things, use the desire to donate as a launching  pad for educating yourself and your family and your community.
  4. Don’t sent it simply so you can feel better about an addiction to consumption.
  5. Find a useful way to send it. Find an appropriate way to send it. Find a relational way to send it. Rather than dumping at Goodwill, engage with a local community development project, like Girls Run 2 or a school, an organization with which you can form an ongoing relationship or an organization with a proven track-record of relationships and development.
  6. Pay for the shipping yourself, don’t ask the receiving organization to pay for that or for port fees or the inevitable import taxes.
  7. If you aren’t sure that used clothes or shoes will be helpful, relational, or desirable, donate money instead and trust the people on the ground to make wise decision in allocating that money.
  8. Consider the amount of waste involved in constantly updating your wardrobe and shipping those goods and consider renewing your wardrobe less often, less expensively.
  9. Ask yourself, really truly ask and demand an honest answer, Why do you want to send your used clothes to Africa? Why does it make you angry to hear it might not be helpful or that cash would be more useful? Does it challenge your ideas about the continent? Does it challenge your consumerism? A do-gooder-without-pain-or-real-sacrifice attitude? Does it make you feel guilty, confused, uncertain? That’s okay. I will say it again, that’s okay. Everyone I know here, in the US, myself, my family, we all face these issues. So answer the question with courageous integrity and then go about addressing that answer. We are all on a journey and instead of judging or boasting, let’s grow.
  10. Research, ask questions, learn, and then act, with eyes open wide and a heart filled with humble generosity.

We want to help, right? I know that. I wrestle with how best to help every single day here. Sometimes the answers are incredibly painful and sometimes they aren’t answers, they are gropings in the dark, prayers for wisdom, confessions of ignorance. And sometimes we simply need to act, to not be paralyzed by fear,  to do due diligence in seeking wisdom and then to take a risk and act in faith.

 *******

Useful articles:

Second Hand Clothes in Africa on CNN

Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

NFL T-Shirts

The series: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners

Is Foreign Aid Bad for Africa in Time

Why Sending Your Old Clothes to Africa Doesn’t Help in the Huffington Post

5 Things This Christian Learned from Islam: Consistency

Part 1: Humility

Part 2: Community

Part 3: Respect

Muslim chaplain ministers at Camp Leatherneck during Ramadan

How long does it take to create a habit? In the 1970s a book called “Psycho-Cybernetics” set forth the 21-day idea for creating a habit. The problem with this number is that is not based on solid research. Brain Pickings reviewed a book that suggests it can take anywhere from 21 days to 254 days to form a habit, depending on how hard the particular habit is and how badly the person wants to form it.

Developing spiritual habits is harder for me than I’d like to admit. Some are engrained and I do them almost without thinking, like praying for help in a crisis or trying not to speak with words that dishonor God. Some are conscious choices but don’t feel difficult because I have made the same choice so often, like tithing or reading my Bible in the morning. Others are much harder and I often forget about them entirely, so they aren’t habits but I’d like them to be, like fasting or spending more concentrated, focused time in prayer.

I don’t think it is easy for my Muslim friends to form the habits of praying five times a day or fasting for an entire lunar month each year. I also don’t think all of them follow through on these disciplines, just like few Christians spend that concentrated time in prayer or go without food for a significant period of time on a regular basis.

In Islam, each prayer time is roughly the same, some are a bit longer and some contain more spontaneous interaction with God, but the overall structure of the prayer is consistent from time to time, from day to day. There is a steady, unbreakable constancy to the rhythms, movements, and words as well as to the time of day. Like the stomach starts to growl around noon because it has developed the habit of being fed then, my friends who pray consistently feel a stirring in their spirit at regular intervals throughout the day.

When the habit is developed, the body and soul start to anticipate the experience. Of eating, of praying, of giving.

Some might assume the ritual prayer to be dry and rote because of this daily consistency and constancy, and this is true, for some and some of the times. But going through the motions anyway, maintaining the attitude of seeking God opens up the spirit for a fresh taste of him.

My pastor in the US used to say, If you don’t feel like praying or singing, pray and sing, and while you do it, ask God to change your attitude. In other words, be consistent and ask God to meet you in your weakness.

When something is done consistently, there is less room or time or energy spent on making decisions about it. When it is time to pray, and prayer has been done many times before, you pray. When it is time to get dressed and you have dressed modestly many times before, you dress modestly. When it is time to fast and you have fasted many times before, you fast.

I have many examples of consistency in these things from people who have invested in my faith – parents, pastors, teachers, and friends. And now I am grateful to be surrounded by people again, here in Djibouti, who aim at pursuing God with a challenging and motivating consistency.

They help me to waver less and to trust that God will meet me in my weakness while I am acting according to my spiritual desires, even in the moments I might feel spiritually dry.

How do you maintain consistency in your spiritual practices? What are the most challenging things for you to do on a regular basis? (for me: fasting and focused prayer continue to be struggles)

*image via Flickr

How Exotic Is Minnesota?

Quick Link: Exotic Minnesotasnow shark

People tend to think other places are exotic but when I come back to Minnesota after years or months away, the place that used to feel normal suddenly appears exotic. People do funny things, use strange words, wear awkward clothing, enjoy uncomfortable activities. At least, from an outsider’s perspective.

Click here to read some of the ways that Minnesota can feel as exotic as Djibouti though the eyes of a guest: Exotic Minnesota

By |February 25th, 2014|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: , |1 Comment

Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

can you even tell what these are?

Quick link: Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

This piece came out last Friday and I’m sharing it just now, on Monday. I have been encouraged by comments on the essay regarding the parenting choices we’ve made and also challenged to not worry so much about what other people think, or what I think they are thinking. I’ve also gotten helpful feedback on how to handle some of these situations in which jet lag and culture shock trump my ability to think clearly. Sometimes being a writer makes me feel like I am walking around in that dream where you find yourself in high school and you forgot to put on your pants (anyone else have that one?) I mean, it feels incredibly vulnerable. But then in these kinds of comments I remember one of the reasons I love doing it – for the community, the exhortation, the sharing of experiences and wisdom that I get to hear from others.

What does my parenting have to do with shoes or Africa? This December I had a split second to decide between defending a parenting choice or defending an entire continent because of how I slipped up and said something I wanted to take back. Ever do that? Yeah, I hardly ever do.

This is the state of Henry’s shoes when we arrived in Minnesota in December. The essay is about this pair of shoes and shoes in Africa and how it can be too easy to blame some parenting choices I make that I might have made differently in retrospect, on living in the developing world.

Click here to read Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

By |February 24th, 2014|Categories: africa|Tags: |4 Comments

Five Things This Christian Learned from Islam: Respect

Part 1: Humility

Part 2: Community

quran respect

I love casual. Blue jeans and a t-shirt. Sport pants and a t-shirt, tennis shoes, messy ponytail, as little makeup and jewelry as possible. When I was young we dressed up every single Sunday for church and I mean in a dress, with nylons and nice shoes and braids in our hair. For the evening Sunday services my parents allowed us to wear pants or even shorts in the summer but that always felt borderline scandalous.

Now, I show up to church straight from practice with the Girls Run 2 team wearing black sport pants and a Love Somalia or Minnesota Gophers t-shirt and florescent yellow Saucony running shoes.

This kind of casual seems like a good thing – we don’t need to dress up for God or for fellow believers. We shouldn’t feel burdened to impress anyone, we aren’t supposed to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. Authenticity is more important and right than putting on a mask of outwardly having it all together.

But. This kind of casual spills over into the spiritual realm and I don’t think that is a good thing.

When that happens, God becomes a sort of buddy, a chum. Jesus becomes a peer. We barge into the presence of God, forgetting that he is holy and awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and that we are but dust.

We do have the freedom to do this, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus we are able to approach the throne of God with confidence, and once in a while it is absolutely appropriate to hurtle ourselves toward God, desperate for him. But other times, how much more appropriate to bow low, to tread lightly, to acknowledge our baseness and his mightiness, our unworthiness and his ultimate worth.

Who dares to claim President Obama is a buddy, even after meeting him? How much more so with the Creator?

Muslims would never dream of performing their ritual prayers without first washing and declaring the intention to pray. This is a clear physical symbol of the washing Christians believe they receive through Jesus and I appreciate the visual reminder of our need to be cleansed. The time they take to wash is time spent preparing the heart, contemplating God’s holiness.

Perhaps I should start taking a few minutes, seconds even, to acknowledge God’s holiness when I come to him in prayer? Maybe not through physical washing, but through gratitude for the forgiveness offered.

Another way I see Muslims’ respect for God is in the way they handle their scriptures. The Quran is never left on the floor, never placed beneath another book. It sits, often, in a stand on the highest shelf in the room. Sometimes it is wrapped in a cloth and when taken down and unwrapped, some Muslims kiss the Quran. No Muslim would dream of reading their Quran on the bathroom or of writing in it.

It is important to realize that comparing the Quran to the Bible is not accurate. The Quran is more accurately compared to Jesus, both believed to be the Word of God. One in written form, one in the form of human flesh. So to compare my treatment of the Bible to Muslims’ treatment of the Quran isn’t exact, but it is still striking and it also causes me to consider how I treat Jesus. Do I treasure him so reverently?

I don’t think our treatment of scriptures or ways of approaching God need to be the same. My dad writes all over his Bible and I have never questioned his absolute respect for God.

Years ago my dad left his Bible in the Louisville, Kentucky airport, at a table that is still burned into his memory. There was no address written inside, only a phone number. A wrong, outdated phone number. The Bible was clearly loved, treasured, valued. Notes scribbled on nearly every page, sermon notes, important dates, prayer requests and answers, insights from daily readings. The person who found the Bible instantly saw how important it was to the owner, figured out the correct phone number and address and Fed-exed it to my dad.

I once described the condition of his Bible to a Muslim friend and her reply was, “He must be a sheikh.” A religious teacher, because he loved God so much and spent so much time in his word.

So while our practices will differ, I think there is still value in growing in our respect, in knowing that though I can wear sport pants or shorts to church, I need to remember my low aspect before a high God. If physically washing or if wrapping the Bible in a cloth and kissing it when we pull it down to read it, helps us remember this, that is a beautiful thing.

Do you think American evangelicals have lost a sense of respect for God or his word? How do you remind yourself of God’s perfection?

*image via Flickr

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