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Within two years, Rwanda is going to ban the sale of second-hand clothes. This will disproportionately affect the country's poor and puts it at odds with the United States. But Rwanda, which imports about $18 million of used clothes a year, says it's a matter of economics and of dignity. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from the capital, Kigali.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In an outdoor market just on the outskirts of Kigali, there are mounds of used clothing for sale. It's the way most Rwandans get their clothes. Emmanuel Guyzire is a super fashionable guy. He's wearing a black vest with a long-sleeved t-shirt and linen genie pants. He says this ban is a, quote, "big problem."
EMMANUEL GUYZIRE: (Through interpreter) Second-hand has become my life. If I want to get money to look after my family, I'm in second-hand clothes.
PERALTA: The ban means Guyzire is out of a job. And he also fears that when the country starts making clothes, it will all look the same.
GUYZIRE: (Through interpreter) You know, the good thing with second hand is you have a choice. It's a big choice. But for the factories, it will be a like uniforms.
PERALTA: The government here says Rwandans deserve better. They deserve to wear new clothes instead of hand-me-downs from the United States and other Western countries. But when you bring up the used clothes ban at this market, you get eye rolls. Grace Uwase says you can buy multiple pieces of used clothes for as little as $1.
GRACE UWASE: But made in Rwanda is very expensive.
PERALTA: So expensive she suspects most won't be able to afford domestic-made clothes. Needless to say, the ban has not been popular policy in Rwanda or abroad. The United States, which is the leading exporter of used clothes to East Africa, has threatened to revisit favorable trade terms if any East African country goes through with the ban. Kenya, which was supposed to enact its own ban, backed off following the U.S. threat. But Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, who addressed the band during a press conference last month, stayed the course.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: We have to grow our economies. We have to grow and establish our industries.
PERALTA: This ban, he says, is all about building a new industry and new jobs, something that is essential in a country with few natural resources.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
KAGAME: We have to confront situations as they come, bearing in mind the difficulties that you'd have to face and manage. But that's the only way we can be able to move forward.
PERALTA: This small factory called Rwanda Clothing is an example of Rwanda could look like.
JOSELYNE UMUTONIWASE: We have here the tailors. This is where they - you know, they put together the pieces.
PERALTA: Joselyne Umutoniwase makes the bespoke modern clothing with echoes of traditional African fashion - a sleek bomber jacket, for example, made with kitenge, a colorful East-African fabric. To Umutoniwase, the ban on second-hand clothing is not only a good thing but also a very Rwandan thing.
UMUTONIWASE: Rwandans - they love to dress well. And they know that the second-hands was not the best.
PERALTA: Umutoniwase also knows that the clothes she sells is expensive, easily more than $50. The ban, she says, will make Rwandans change their philosophy. There will be no more buying clothes by the pound.
UMUTONIWASE: I think it's up to now to also learn how to manage your spendings. You know, you spent for good clothes, and you wear it for a long time.
PERALTA: The ban, she says, opens the door not just to wear new fashionable threads but to wear authentically African clothes. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kigali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.