Wednesday, December 21, 2011


As I was heading into our office compound in Juba a couple of weeks ago there was a young man sitting on the front porch. There's always people hanging around our office looking for jobs or information or to socialize. There are ladies who have a tea-station set-up under a large Neem tree where you can sit in the shade and sip the sweet spiced tea that is so common here. Sharing tea is one of those pleasures I always enjoy but don't partake of often enough. Somedays I look down from my second floor office and see men - and it's nearly always men - the same men sitting taking tea all day.
Anyway, I walked past this fellow but I had to do a double take and go back and look at him again. The guy was wearing a short-sleeved knit work shirt and over the left pocket was a patch for "MacLane Distribution." Now, MacLane Mid-Atlantic is a huge wholesale goods distributor located just outside Fredericksburg. The patch just said "MacLane" and not "MacLane Mid-Atlantic," so I don't know if it is from the same location. I told the guy anyway that the company on his shirt was from my town! Now, the name embroidered over the right pocket was "Earl," and I was pretty sure this guy's name was not Earl. Still, it was amazing to see a shirt possibly from so close to home.
They say the ultimate Holy Grail in Africa is to see someone wearing a shirt you donated to charity. Jacquelaine Novogoratz (sp) who founded Accumen Fund and wrote a book called "The Blue Sweater" related how she saw a boy in Rwanda(?) wearing a blue sweater she had donated right down to her name printed on the size-tag. I never expect to have that experience because like most men I wear my clothes, t-shirts especially, until they are practically disintegrated and not fit for donation. But observing the shirts that people wear here is a fascinating hobby.
I've never seen a Fredericksburg shirt, save the possible MacLane one mentioned above. But I have seen shirts for UVA, George Mason, Virginia Tech and the University of Richmond. I remember when the ferry I was riding from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania was coming in to dock there was a young deckhand wearing a bright orange "Virginia" shirt. I was so happy to see it. A few days ago up in Wau I saw two young men wearing "We Are Marshall" t-shirts, donated left-overs from promotions for the movie of a couple of years ago.
Many of the shirts that find their way over here appear to be left-overs from various sporting or movie promotions. I remember when I worked for a couple of t-shirt manufacturers in the Carolinas in the 1980's how we would sell large quantities of shirts to screen-printers. The companies would print-up lots and lots of shirts advertising things like "Superbowl," or "NCAA Finals." Once those events are over and no one wants the shirts anymore they end-up getting dumped in places like Africa, sold by the pound.
I've probably seen t-shirts and hats for most of the major US sporting teams, certainly baseball and basketball teams. It always warms my heart when I see an Orioles hat. More popular than shirts for US sports teams are shirts for soccer teams, especially those from Europe. There are intense rivalries here between supporters of various UK soccer teams such as Manchester United or Arsenal.
The fact that most folks here cannot read, and even fewer have a grasp of English, makes for some humorous moments, for me at least. I enjoy a private chuckle when I see young men wearing t-shirts that have on them things like "Juicy Girl," or "Navy Mom." The absolute funniest was one of our theological school students who one day wore to class a florescent pink t-shirt emblazoned with the logo "Porn Star in Training." The principal's wife caught sight of it and asked the student quietly if he knew what the shirt meant, which he did not. The principal then tried to explain to him what his shirt meant after which the shirt quickly disappeared and has never been seen again.
Other funny shirts, at least funny when you see them here, are ones which advertise things like, "Kowalski Family Reunion, 2008" and you're pretty sure the person wearing it was not at the reunion. Two of the funniest locally oriented shirts which I have seen were one showing someone using a latrine - yes, USING a latrine - and encouraging people to be careful with their waste and always use a latrine, and another warning against the dangers of Guinea Worms with an image of one of the worms bursting out from a victim's leg. I would like so much to buy one of these shirts, but most are given away by aid agencies and never find their way to the market.
I've looked around the markets for locally oriented t-shirts but they are never there, only the donated ones from overseas which have been sold by the pound to middlemen. I understand the reason. I 've been given a couple of t-shirts during the course of my work and I would be loathe to sell them away, in spite of the many other shirts I am lucky to own. The poor folks here who are lucky to have a couple of decent shirts are hardly in a position to give away or sell articles of clothing.