Thursday, April 12, 2012

The politics of buying dead white men's clothes in Honduras

I bought a T-shirt yesterday, my first clothing purchase in Honduras. It was overdue. We packed the night before we left, weighed our bags and found we had to shed about 20 pounds worth of stuff to make the 50-pound per-person limit. The skimpy wardrobe got skimpier still.
In Honduras, as in Canada, I shop used. It's cheaper, I can afford better stuff and the clothes are softer and less scratchy. (I have an obsession with avoiding scratchy.)
Fortunately, there are lots of little stores offering 'Ropa Americana,' the stylish term for used clothes. Some are on racks, some in big heaps, and prices are reasonable - maybe $3 or $4 for a short-sleeved shirt.
They aren't really 'Ropa Americana.' Most are made in China or India or even Honduras. The maquiladoras here - special zones with no taxes, low minimum wages and few rules - have spawned a textile and clothing industry. It's odd to think of a shirt making its way from here to Vancouver and back again, like some migrating bird.
Still, it's a nice term, and better than some. When I was considering a Cuso International placement in Ghana, I read that second-hand clothes were called 'obroni wewu' - loosely translated as dead white man's clothes. (Literally, “a white man has died.”)
I had wondered how the clothes got from North America to here, especially the t-shirts for universities, sports teams and fun runs that are so commonly worn. (Often incongruously, like the aged, sun-wrinkled woman wearing a red t-shirt that said "I'm a little princess.")
And, hours after I bought my shirt, I went on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, apparently using a new algorithm that actually reads minds, arranged for a sponsored link on my page to Ropa al Mayreo. They have a giant warehouse in Miami and will ship 100-pound bales of used clothes - no rips or holes - to your door. They're vague on prices, but $1 to $1.50 a pound seems in the range. That's about $1 per item, but there are shipping costs too.
There's a continuing debate on the used clothing business, particularly in Africa. Some fear the loss of culture, as people dump traditional clothes for Abercombie and Fitch knockoffs. Ghana has promoted traditional dress on Fridays, kind of the opposite of our dress-down day.
And local clothing producers complain they can't compete and want the imports banned. (The issue is summarized nicely here.)
But really, governments better be handling the rest of their responsibilities well before they start dictating what people can wear.
And arguing that poor people - 67 per cent of Hondurans live in poverty, 43 per cent in extreme poverty - should pay more for clothes to prop up a domestic clothing industry is just cruel.
My new t-shirt is on the clothesline now, and I just went and checked. It's Fruit of the Loom brand. And it was made in Honduras.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Semana Santa in Honduras

We've made it through our first Semana Santa - Easter Week - in Copan Ruinas.

It's a fascinating phenomenon.

For starters, it's the year's big holiday, and much of the country is on the move. The public sector, and some businesses, shut down for the week; most operations just knock off early on Wednesday and don't re-open until Monday.

The tradition is that people travel for a brief break - to the beaches, or back home if they have moved away, or just somewhere different. The main bus terminal in San Pedro Sula handled some 1.3 million people in the week, mostly in the last five days. The roads are jammed, buses packed, prices rise and people crowd into the tourist spots. (That's not just true in Honduras; we avoided Semana Santa travel in Mexico after seeing pictures of beaches we knew as uncrowded staked out with tents from the high-tide line on back.)

And, of course, there is Easter. On Palm Sunday - the week before Easter, for those out of touch - there was a procession to the Catholic church on the square, with everyone carrying big palm branches. (Much more dramatic than the little folded palm crosses I remember from my Anglican youth.)

On Thursday, the night before Good Friday, they decorated two blocks with alfombras - literally carpets, but in this case elaborate scenes created on the street with coloured sawdust. Volunteers started work that night, laying down a base and using stencils to add colours from big bags of dyed sawdust. By about 2 a.m. they had created one block of scenes from the life of Jesus, and another of Mayan symbols. (The alfombras in the big cities are hugely elaborate.)

On Good Friday, there were morning and evening processions. We followed the morning group, which sets out from the church, people in robes carrying draped tables with large sculptures of Christ and the disciples, several hundred others following along. At each of the stations of the cross - 14 here - the procession stops and there is a Bible reading and brief sermon. The stations, on the cobbled streets, were decorated with draperies and a carpet of the long green pine needles that grow on the trees in the hills.

The sun beat down and it was roasting, in the low 30s, and the route led up steep, cobbled hills. It was impressive, especially when a group of women - mothers, obviously - came down from the Barrio Buena Vista carrying a platform with a haunted looking Mary, meeting with the main procession at Station 4, where Jesus meets his mother on the way to Calvary.

The spoken messages at each stop were interesting. The theme seemed to be how messed up Honduras has become - crime, corruption, drugs, alcohol - and that it was time to do something about it. (Though what was less than clear.)

When I watched celebrations from other cities on TV, the Catholic priests were talking about the same things. It appeared to be an orchestrated message, though less than half of Hondurans now identify as Catholic; evangelical churches have made great strides.

The evening procession was smaller, and the last few hundred yards were over the alfombras, scuffling them into obscurity. It was a mix of highly traditional rituals and low-budget technology. For music, a kid was carrying a $50 battery-power boom box, a guy walked in front of him holding a microphone, and a third person - who must have been deaf by the end of the day - walked in front with a giant white megaphone on his shoulder.

There was a fair amount of partying going on during Semana Santa as well. One of the messages in the procession was that people should be spending more time reflecting on Easter's meaning, and less on plans to hit the beach.

The president - Porfiro Lobo - made the same point in a statement as the week began. He urged all Hondurans to use Semana Santa as a time to reflect, and think about what they should and should not do. He suggested strongly he was spending the week at the family ranch doing just that.

But La Prensa found his photo on David Copperfield’s website, posing with the magician after catching his show in Las Vegas. It's a sore point, as many politicians apparently head to Miami and other U.S. destinations for the week, while most people pile into a bus and head to a crowded beach.

By Sunday morning, the sawdust was swept up. By the afternoon, things were back to normal.

But there was a cost to all that rushing around. The accidental death toll from the holiday included 29 people killed on the roads and 18 drownings. About 30 people drown in B.C. in a year. Honduras has twice the population, but 18 in a week shows a certain casualness about life and death that seems a problem down here.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

'When the premier speaks, we would rather her comments not be reported'

North Shore News reporter Benjamin Alldritt has a great column on getting kicked out of a Christy Clark rally here.
Allldrit got a personal invitation from the local Liberal riding association. So did hundreds of other people. So he went to the meeting in a hotel, was admitted, got his name tag and was then booted out by Gabe Garfinkel, executive assistant to the premier. (Garfinkel was an aide to federal Liberal MP Joyce Murray who came over to the provincial payroll when Clark won the leadership.)
You have to leave, he said. It's not a media event. You shouldn't have been invited.
"When the premier speaks, we would rather her comments not be reported," Garfinkle said. "I'm sure you can understand that we don't want comments made in front of a private audience made public."
Let us count the gigantic failures here.
First, and most important, in promoting the notion that Clark wants to say one thing to several hundred Liberal supporters, but that it must be kept secret from the public. Fine, a strategy session with key people might need to be secret. But a speech to a throng of invited supporters hardly justifies secrecy, and creates the sense the premier has something to hide. (When in fact, as Alldritt notes, the speech was almost certainly the usual platitudes.)
Second, the hamhanded and dumb way Alldritt got the boot (although it did provide grist for a very nice column).
And third, the incompetence shown by the supposedly organized Liberals. If you do want to keep things secret as some sort of political strategy, or just to make supporters feel special, then you also need to manage the guest list so you don't invite journalists.
The result is that an innocuous event has become a political liability on several level.

But read the whole column here - it's worth your time.