In Ghana, a different kind of 'casual Friday'

Ghanaians swap Western attire for local garb to help the country's textile industry.

Duck into any government ministry or executive boardroom here on Fridays these days and you'll notice a little extra splash of color. Loose shirts with geometrical patterns in red and maroon have replaced stiff pin-striped suits. Bright flowing wax-print dresses have nudged out conservative skirts and blouses.

This is "casual Fridays," African style.

The Ghanaian government is urging civil servants and office workers to abandon their Westernized business attire in favor of local fabrics. But unlike in the US and elsewhere, where khakis and an open collar is the boss's way of bringing a little ease to the end of the week, Ghana's "National Friday Wear," launched last month, has bigger things on its mind. Its goal is two-fold: to celebrate African culture, and, more important, to create jobs by reviving a textile industry that has all but collapsed.

Ghanaians - like the citizens of nearly every African country - predominantly wear second-hand clothes from Europe and North America. Nonprofit groups sell donated clothing in bulk to exporters, who in turn sell them across Africa. For the poor, used clothing is the cheapest way to dress. Hip young urbanites who have more money to spend consider the second-hand clothes fashionable simply because they evoke America. Even cabinet ministers have been spotted buying Western suits in Kantamanto, a disused railway yard turned mall-sized used-clothing market.

But it has taken its toll on what was once a thriving industry here. Ghana imports some $43 million worth of used clothes annually, more than any other African nation, says the International Trade Center, based in Geneva. By contrast, its clothing exports - mostly socks - totaled just $4 million last year. The country that once employed some 25,000 textile workers now has just 3,000.

Enter "National Friday Wear."

It took little to persuade Kofi Andoh, an accountant with National Insurance Co., to leave his a jacket and tie in the closet once a week. "This place is very hot," says Mr. Andoh, sporting the loose-fitting red and maroon shirt. "We should be allowed to wear this anytime."

"You have to portray some of your culture," says a woman named Golda, wearing a multicolored wax print dress featuring the logo of the Bank of Ghana, her employer.

Ghana has a tradition of creating stunning cloth. The pinnacle is the woven silk known as kente, worn off the shoulder toga-style by royalty in the Ashanti kingdom, an ethnic group in central Ghana. Recently reelected President John Kufuor donned one during his inauguration four years ago. Ghanaians also adopted batik from Dutch traders bringing the cloth from the East Indies. Wax prints - brightly colored often fanciful patterns worn by women - are popular here as they are across West Africa.

But under British rule, Africans who wanted to get ahead adopted the manners - and dress - of their colonial masters. The trend continued even after Ghana became the first African colony to gain its independence, in 1957.

"If you wanted to look educated you had to dress Western," says Kofi Ansah, a Ghanaian fashion designer who studied at the Chelsea School of Art in London. In the 1980s, when other countries were promoting African identity, Ghanaian fabric developed a reputation for poor quality. "People only wore local fabrics because they couldn't afford imported ones," says Mr. Ansah.

He's been at the forefront of trying to change that, working with Ghanaian Textile Printing to improve its products and more recently submitting winning designs to the government's competition for "National Friday Wear."

"It is my dream to see Ghana develop a clothing industry," Ansah says. He believes there is a niche market for Ghanaian-designed clothes among African-Americans. "If we are not wearing our own stuff here how can we expect to go sell it to someone else?"

Ben Peasah, in charge of promoting Made in Ghana goods for the Ministry of Trade and Industry, makes appearances on breakfast TV shows wearing Ghanaian clothing to boost "National Friday Wear."

"Relaxed, comfortable, easy-going," he says, sitting behind his cluttered desk at the ministry wearing a white shirt with black and gray traditional African Adinkra symbols designed by Kofi Ansah. People have stopped him on the street to ask where he got the shirt, he adds.

The Friday-wear competition called for designers to create clothes that are "unique, simple, functional, and affordable," says Mr. Peasah. Affordability is the toughest criteria to achieve. The government is helping some of Ghana's few clothing manufacturers produce shirts for the equivalent of about $15 - cheap by European standards, but the price of an entire wardrobe of second-hand clothes.

Used clothes have caused tens of thousands of jobs to disappear in South Africa, Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, among other countries, according to the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers Federation. Neil Kearney, the union's general secretary, has called the second-hand clothes market "a scavenging trade, where companies get their products practically free before converting them into huge profits."

Here in Ghana, they call it abruni waawu - literally, "a white man has died."

Isaac Antwi-Bonsu, chairman of the sellers at Kantamanto, says he welcomes the government's move to urge Ghanaians to wear local clothes more often. But he opposes calls by some union officials and clothing manufacturers in Africa to boost domestic textile industries by banning imports of second-hand clothes.

"We are a Third World country, and (used clothes) are affordable," he says.

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