Africa has become trendy. The NY times recently led their style section with an article entitled "Designing to an Afro beat". The article argued that African clothing, or perhaps "African-themed clothing", is on a rise.
They said "retailers like Barneys New York, mass marketers like American Apparel and (various) designers... embrace pan-African influences, responding, as if in concert, to some far away drumbeat."
The article also cites the costumes in Avatar.
Clearly Africa is moving up in the world.
But the article only considers a small portion of the ways in which Africa has become trendy in the fashion world.
Little did the author of that article realize, you don't even need the those leopard prints to sell Africa to the fashion world.
All you need is an African orphan, or child soldier, and you've got your next trend in the making.
Take, for example, this group. They are making whistles. Stylish ones, of course. For $30 you can buy a regular whistle, or upgrade and for only $10 more and you can buy the "gunmetal whistle". And for one hundred you can get the gold whistle (read the fine print. It is brass.)
Kind of pricey? Don't worry, you don't just get a whistle, you get a story, in the form of the Falling Whistles Journal. Apparently the young founder of this organization traveled to Congo briefly and heard a story about a child who was too small to carry a gun, so they sent him to the frontlines with a whistle...
A number of questions come to mind, and much has already been said about this on the very interesting blog Wronging Rights.
But Falling Whistles is just one of a growing number of companies/organizations selling African charity as fashion. The organization Common Threadz offers to donate a uniform to a needy orphan every time you buy one of their $38 t-shirts. They even have a line of t-shirts called the orphan line. Catchy title, I suppose. The "orphan line" shirts were actually designed by African orphans they tell me. Ok, "designed" might be a stetch. But they did have children draw the pictures.
Yes, it is slightly alarming to have t-shirt lines called the orphan line, but really where is the problem? All of these organizations donate money, or goods, or services, to Africa.
But can't we do one better?
Because, whether we believe it or not, Africa has actual clothing designers and jewlery makers. Where do you think these t-shirts and whistles are made? I'm willing to bet that it is not Africa.
Why do we seem to dream-up products here (and produce them, somewhere else) and sell them in Africa's name? Who are we doing the favor to? Africa probably has one of the highest populations of tailors and seamstresses in the world. They are talented. Given half a chance at fair import/export regulations and decent infrastructure, Africa's sewing industry would take the world by storm. Not to mention their craft industry.
So let's think twice about creating any more products to sell as African charity. Africans don't need our charity. They need us to open our markets to them. They need us to buy their products.
It is nice the way we have figured out how to market charity, and make it trendy. I believe there is a lot of good will behind it. But charity isn't always what people need.
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