Rewatching Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown - Kenya episode
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
This month commemorates three years since the passing of Anthony Bourdain, one of the best storytellers of our times
Tony is mostly known for his bestseller, "Kitchen Confidential," and the award-winning TV show Parts Unknown. Probably under the influence of Netflix's algorithm, I decided to rewatch the show, and the episode that he'd filmed in Kenya caught my attention. In Season 12 Episode 1, W.Kamau Bell joined him on this trip. As they talked to people on the ground, and the show went by, I felt I was immersed in an hour of Kenya's culture from my tiny couch in London.
In the capital Nairobi, the duo meets a community group called Kibera Creative Arts, which provides affordable resources to the local working class to help them thrive in the arts. They also explore the robust queer scene with the help of an art collective To Revolutionary Type Love. Conversation with the organizers of a non-profit group, Box Girls, who teaches women how to fight and defend themselves. Meeting with the local matatu scene, who've made the party buses a popular method of transportation in Nairobi and talking to the conservationists at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, who help to protect endangered species in Kenya.
Over drinks, Bourdain and Bell also meet up with Melissa Mbugua, the managing partner at MNM Consulting Africa, and Njeri Gikera, a designer and founder of Chillimango, a clothing brand of, as Gikera describes it, afro-urban streetwear. The four discuss the difficulties and the impact of foreign countries on the local market. They talk about how 70% of Africans buy second-hand clothes and shoes, otherwise known in Kenya as 'mitumba.' The tonnes of second-hand clothes imported from the US and Europe leave the locally-owned fashion companies struggling to attract customers.
'This low-cost clothing option has absolutely crushed the domestic clothing market,' Bourdain observes. But Kenyan mitumba merchants are significant economic players themselves as it's a $159 billion industry that employs about 700,000 people.
Their jobs were lost in an instant when COVID-19 started to spread globally, prompting the government to impose a ban on the importation of second-hand goods. "As a precautionary measure, KEBS [Kenya Bureau of Standards] wishes to notify the general public and all importers of used garments and used shoes that the importation of used garments and footwear is hereby prohibited with immediate effect until further notice," said Managing Director Lt Col (Rtd) Bernard Njiraini in a statement issued on March 31.
The ban was widely criticized for being based on the presumption that imported second-hand items are a COVID-19 risk. The scientific evidence points out that the virus cannot survive on the porous materials, such as fabric, long enough to pose a threat. Moreover, 'mitumba clothing, as has been the custom over the years, undergo rigorous sorting, packing, and fumigation before being shipped into the country, hence their distinct scent,' said the traders in a statement in response by the Mitumba Association of Kenya.
'The government has suspended importation of second-hand clothes with immediate effect to safeguard the health of Kenyans and promote local textiles in the wake of coronavirus,' the Industry, Trade and Co-operatives Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina has said. Although the ban was long wanted by local fashion businesses, the economic effect on the prohibition of mitumba was found too significant. As mentioned above, the cost Of Kenya's "Mitumba Ban" is USD 159 million, and 700,000 lost jobs, which is proven too costly to overlook. As reported in August, 2020, the imports of second-hand clothes will be resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.