The "Working in Ghana" Project

Used Clothing Seller

[Auntie Jean is a 45-year old trader who deals in used clothing "obroni wawoo" (literally, "dead white people's clothing") and charcoal. Ebenezer Mensah saw her selling her wares and asked if she would be willing to talk about her work. They arranged for a meeting at her home on a Sunday afternoon. She lives in Tema, Ghana's main port city, with her husband, five children of her own aged 29 to 11, and her sister's daughter. She completed elementary school and one year of middle school. The interview was conducted in the Twi language.]

Before I started my trading activities I was preparing gari and beans for sale. But a lot of people started preparing this for sale so I backed out and started selling used clothing and charcoal.

Every morning I prepare meals for my husband and the children before they go to school. When they leave at 7:00 a.m. I will prepare for my trading. By 8:00 a.m. I will gather smaller heaps of charcoal on a board. Each heap sells for about one hundred cedis (then, about 20 cents). Many people cannot buy a full bag of charcoal for use. So I buy it in bags and sell it in smaller amounts. A bag sells for three thousand cedis ($6). The women from the rural areas where the charcoal is produced bring the larger bags to Tema and distribute them to people who buy in bags. I have a younger sister who sews at home. She takes care of the charcoal selling when I am going round town to sell my used clothing. When the children return from school by twelve noon, they take care of the charcoal to relieve my sister. The sale of charcoal is very slow. By the time I return from my rounds, just a few of the heaps might have been bought. Normally by the evening when people start cooking their supper the remaining heaps may be bought. These days people are turning to the use of gas stoves so they scarcely buy charcoal--they claim that using a gas stove is cheaper. It is because of this that I have added the selling of used clothing.

I get the used clothing from the wholesalers. They import it in bales from Europe. When they open the bales you select the items you are interested in. If you decide to sell or trade in women's wear then you select only female items. After making your selection, you show the clothes to the wholesaler, who prices it. When I come home I put my price on each item.

You can decide to display the clothing anywhere for people passing by to get attracted. In this way many of them will buy on credit. When they do that, my money gets locked up. I then have the problem of going round to collect what I am owed. If they don't pay then I cannot go for new stock.

I take my clothing round the town. I put a lot of items into a flat tray and hang a few of them on my shoulders. I also put some on hangers and hold them in my hands. I enter into houses on my way so that the residents can buy. Many people are very shy about buying used clothing, but when a trader enters their houses, they will buy them. I start my rounds at 9:00 a.m. and return home by 3:00 p.m. On a good day, I come home earlier than that. By the time I get home I am usually tired, but I have to see to other house duties.

I started this trading with five thousand cedis ($10). I buy the charcoal on credit. I use some of it myself for cooking but at the end of the sale of a bag I get a profit of about four hundred cedis (80 cents), not counting the cost of the bag and what I use for my cooking.

I also take some of the used clothing for my children. When I have sold enough to buy another batch, I save the few items left for them. I save a lot of money this way, and even get some things for my own use.

I prefer this trading to any other job--especially white collar jobs. (She calls it "government jobs"). I am my own master, and need not take instructions from anybody. I take my own time and do my trading.

The most frustrating and disappointing aspect of trading is when people don't buy the things you sell. Sometimes I will walk in town and enter every house but people will just look at the things and finally tell you that there is no money. I can walk in town the whole day and not sell anything.

When people take advantage of this situation and decide to buy the clothing on credit, they don't pay on time. Your money gets locked up and you can't go for a new stock till you get your money back. Some even pay the money in bits and before you are aware of it you have spent the money. I could go bankrupt through this process.

If somebody wants to embark on trading activity such as this, she would need to have enough money to ensure continuity of the business. You must not be too sympathetic because your customers will take advantage of that and refuse to pay you. Sometimes I so very hard on my creditors that they find money to pay me as early as possible.

If you are a trader, most of the time you are late with supper. Sometimes when I stay too long in town, I come home very tired. When I'm tired I work a bit slower preparing the evening meal. I sometimes have problems with my husband. In fact this is a usual occurrence. When it happens, he goes to buy kenkey and fried fish rather than take my meals. The meals go bad by the next morning. There is no time to vary the menu so the meals become monotonous. We sometimes buy too much rice or kenkey or boiled yams or plantain, whichever is available and easy to boil in the shortest possible time. In fact I get very worried that my family is not happy about food but I do my best, given the circumstances.

Normally I prepare stew and soup during the weekends. I store them in the freezer so when I return from the trading rounds I can heat it up for the meals. This is what I can do for now.

My church activities are also sometimes affected. When I am tired I cannot attend evening church programs. I was a Junior Guild teacher and caretaker at our church but this problem has prevented me from attending to my duties. I have been replaced by another caretaker.

Still I cannot stop my trading because of these problems. I have to support my husband financially and see to the running of the house. He works as a clerk but is not paid regularly, so he also has a small store in the house to sell provisions. And the school fees for our children these days are very high. Electricity bills and water rates are also unbearable. We now pay for waste disposal about five hundred cedis ($1) a month. My husband cannot bear all this. He himself knows it.