|Bags and Stamps
April 13, 2007
|Immigrants have bags of ambition
June 2, 2007
|Let's talk about bags if you please. Bags are in the news these days. I don't mean San Francisco's ban on plastic shopping bags. Rather I'm thinking about this type of bag.||Forget "It" bags, WAG bags, eco bags, bags for life and "I'm not a plastic bag" bags. There is only one bag that matters right now.|
In Ghana and most of West Africa we call it the "Ghana must go" bag.
|In Ghana, it is known as the "Ghana must go" bag;|
|Last year Sokari Ekine revealed her own bag woman tendancies and opened the discussion - she's a connaisseur. In response, Georgia Popplewell
noted that "in Trinidad I’ve heard those bags called Guyanese Samsonite". We learnt that in Germany, per contra, they are known as "Tuekenkoffer" or Turkish suitcase. In Boston I've heard them referenced as Chinatown totes, and called Bangladeshi bags in England,
presumably after the 1970s influx of Bangladeshi immigrants.
in Germany it is "Tuekenkoffer" or the Turkish suitcase; in America, the "Chinatown tote"; in Guyana as "Guyanese Samsonite" and elsewhere as the "Bangladeshi Bag"
|The "Ghana must go" designation resulted from the various expulsions of
immigrants that Ghana and Nigeria engaged in between the 1960s and
1980s. Many were only able to pack their belongings in such bags before
fleeing, expelled with barely hours or days notice. Thus Ghana must go
is ironic at best, and has mocking overtones at worst.
During the Rawlings Chain lean years in the 1980s when it wasn't simply a matter of returning immigrants and the whole country was facing political and economic difficulties (Revolution! Ghana), they were simply called "refugee bags". We were all refugees then.
|or the "Refugee Bag".|
|In any case, the trend in naming is clear, these utility bags designate immigrants, refugees, or those down on their luck. They are emblems of hardship, relative poverty and exigency. I'll argue here that they are object lessons about the fluidity of ideas.||The sobriquets are telling. It is the bag of the uprooted, willingly or otherwise, of those in search of a better life who are ready to work for it, or of an easier life courtesy of others.|
|these utility bags designate immigrants, refugees, or those down on their luck. They are emblems of hardship, relative poverty and exigency.||It is a bag emblematic of a world in upheaval and of a rapidly changing Britain.|
|The question she raises is one of historical memory. Our plaid bags are the physical proof of the way in which the boundaries that meant nothing in our pre-colonial past now loom large in Africa. Indeed their name stems from the 1983 Expulsion Order giving illegal immigrants 14 days to leave Nigeria. But more broadly the bags refer to repeated upheavals in our lands and sub-Saharan Africa knows upheaval all too well. Still, there's a sort of existential defiance in her reclaiming these objects of loss. Divisions are embodied in the cheap, practical and functional bags.||It is a bag emblematic of a world in upheaval and of a rapidly changing Britain.|
Alternatively in Ghana, and humourously, they are called "Efiewura Sua Me", literally "help me carry my bag". Indeed there's always someone at the bus or train station who needs help moving such bags. (And yes, I did help that young lady after taking a surreptitious snap with my dodgy cell phone. Chivalry isn't dead even at midnight at the bus terminal).
Right now, you can see these bags piled up in airport arrival halls around Britain, or stacked on luggage trolleys at train stations. London's streets, and those of other cities, are full of people weighed down by them.
I wrote the foregoing to connect a few dots raised by a recent stir in Ghanaian newspapers. The headline read: Louis Vuitton sells "Ghana Must Go".
The images of models bounding down the catwalk at Marc Jacob's 2007 collection for Louis Vuitton raised the ire of a few commentators. An example:
The expensive shoes the model was wearing, indeed her entire outfit, stand in sharp contrast to the utility bag she was wielding. A typical review of the show mentions
a funny cheap checked shopping bag that carried a big, passport-style Louis Vuitton stamp...
The language of the style section is too clever by half but they captured the incongrousness and appeal of the image. A complex refraction indeed. A close look at a full slideshow of Marc Jacobs' creations shows that the bags of our tale were a leitmotif of the collection.
This is nothing new in fashion; slumming is a trope in the rarefied heights of haute couture. In recent years we have seen much appropriation of the sort and things like service uniforms (UPS, McDonalds etc.) have gained a fashion quotient. This is run of the mill piracy and the kind of tongue-in-cheek sentiment we applaud our designers for.
The author of the article was incensed that Ghanaians hadn't capitalized on the Ghana must go iconography and that others were now about to make hay out of a designer bag frenzy.
Having an idea stolen can be more difficult to deal with especially when the other party makes a bigger name and money off the idea than what it was originally worth...
A tempest in a tea pot in short.
Of course I could have pointed out that a proud Ghanaian artist was blazing these trails long before Marc Jacobs got there. Indeed there is an element of theft in this episode. If you look at Senam's work, you'll also see that she focuses on the passport stamp along with the Ghana must go bag. She highlighted not just the bag, the few personal mementos, photos and such, but also the passport stamp. Those who didn't have the requisite stamp on their residency papers or passports were the ones who were forced into upheaval with only these bags to carry their belongings into the unknown. Thus issues of legitimacy and exile are part of the questions she poses in her ongoing series.
In many ways, Jacobs's shtick was only a high-profile plagiarism. I expect Senam would be tickled by the nexus of commercialization and piracy that she likely provoked. The Akan proverb, humanity knows no boundaries, is one she would have been steeped in. Not to mention that the plaid pattern comes and goes used by all and sundry. The Wife notes incidentally that plaid is in this season in all the fashion magazines and stores. It was inevitable that others would latch on to it.
|They'll be moving on up - to fake Louis Vuitton and then, one day, maybe Louis Vuitton itself. And yes, there is an LV version of the "Ghana must go" bag. Known as the Street GM, it costs £1,400.|
Let's first discuss the pattern. The majority of these bags are produced in China and it is fitting, given the interesting history of the pattern that covers them.
from: c r i s
The plaid pattern is thought to originate in the Taklamakan area in Xinjiang Uyghur in China perhaps between 100-700BC and certainly by the 3rd century...
In any case, what claim does Ghana have to Ghana must go? Shouldn't the Nigerians, who ironically coined the term, have first cuts of any royalties? Heck these bags aren't even produced in Ghana, we are mere buyers and users. Our Chinese friends manufacture them using their native pattern. And, as we have seen, our local name for the bags is not widely known outside of West Africa. We're not the only refugees, immigrants or attendees of the school of hard knocks.
|Its manufacturer (Zhejiang Daxin Industry Co. Ltd, China; minimum order: 10,000 units) describes it simply as a tote bag, but it has a multitude of names depending on geography.|
|I can remember the scene at JFK airport waiting in line for a Ghana Airways flight, watching a market woman and the fifteen young men who would be taking the trip with her wares - all in huge fully packed Ghana must go bags. They had brought a big truck to the airport and were blocking the entrance causing a stir as their cargo was unloaded. This was even after 9/11 but she wasn't minding the Homeland Security folks that approached. Mama Trader wasn't travelling herself but had come to supervise the dispatching of her consignment of goods home. She made it clear that she wasn't planning for any of her workers to pay any excess luggage fees. I'm almost positive they didn't; she must have had a 'business arrangement' with the airline (or at least those manning the counter). Incidentally Ghana Airways went out of business shortly thereafter. Moving right along...||
At 9am yesterday at Victoria's "Hell Corner" - where the cross-currents of commuters, tourists, travellers and newly arrived migrants clash as they fight their way between trains, Tubes, buses and the coach station - two scruffy little boys stood dwarfed by three of the bags.
Mesmerised by the bendy buses, one wandered towards the road, only to be shouted back by his older sister, who was carrying another of the bulging bags. Her mother was somehow managing three. Behind her was the grandmother, stooped and wrinkled beyond belief, but managing her own plaid tote. Eastern European, certainly, and undoubtedly poor.
My first thought was: "They're here to stay." And the second: "They're doing exactly what I'd do if I'd grown up in some poverty-stricken hell hole and there was a way out."
The Ghanaian artist Senam Okudzeto has very personal knowledge of the history of "Ghana must go" and has incorporated its iconography into her work. If you look at the fragments of her recent exhibitions, you'll be exposed to a history of dislocation, of fractured, sudden enforced exile.
As my colleague Jeff Randall argued yesterday, unrestricted immigration has worrying implications for housing, healthcare and education and essential services. There are mutterings of an amnesty for illegal immigrants and that is, surely, the only practical way forward while also securing Britain's borders.
|If you are confronted with packing up your entire possesions in a hurry
for fear of your safety, a Ghana must go bag will undoubtedly be a
source of comfort. If you're trying to pack tins of corned beef and
sardines, rice and sundry spare parts along with the clothes your
relatives back in Ghana lack, you will gravitate towards the Ghana must
go bag. At such times, volume and weight is everything. Ghana must go
bags are about the most practical and lightweight luggage that exists.
Plastic, rugged and functional, you can even wrap them with tape to ensure additional sturdiness so that they don't split when they are manhandled by underpaid bag handlers. You can place all sorts of foodstuffs in them: smoked fish, yams, meat and spices. And heck they are distinctive: plaid, woven and plastic. As such, they are fixtures in many routes serving the developing world.
But for those already here - well, the majority didn't make the journey so they could stay at the bottom of British society. The cheap, plastic bags they haul after them, overflowing with their belongings, are the modern equivalent of the battered leather suitcases piled high at the Ellis Island museum, a symbol of the self-interested determination of the immigrants who built America.
Anyone who has the ambition and aspiration to come here will not be satisfied with a tote bag for long.
|Still like Marc Jacobs, and in the spirit of Senam, I thought a juxtaposition would be appropriate and, rather than link to the
original images, I thought I'd perform a creative theft with the following image. The title should be evident:
The symbolism of the bags is the signal subject of the work of a American-Ghanaian artist who grew up in Ghana, Nigeria and the UK (yes I should have mentioned Senam's Nigerian connection - isn't that a complication? And doesn't that explain the resonance of the Ghana must go iconography in her boundary-straddling life? Not to mention her focus on the passport stamp of approval. Sidenote: this modern traveller now has a very sensible Swiss connection, whither neutrality?)
This image is juxtaposed with a recent appropriation by an American fashion designer working for an France-based luxury company whose ironic contribution is to place a seal on the bag, contrasting the pennies on the dollar cost of the bag with a logo that is reknowned for its deleterious effects on even the fattest wallets - a logo, moreover, that is often counterfeited by Chinese manufacturers in a global shadow economy of knockoffs that are sold all over the world. The significance of the logo or stamp of approval is iconic in expressing authenticity, legitimacy and belonging, demarcating the boundaries separating countries at once, and luxury status symbols delineating the rich from the poor.
Incidentally this note was prompted by a posting by an Indian American, who is arguably more Ghanaian in sensibility than me from his few years in Ghana, said posting focused on the celebration of National Tartan Day by Scottish Americans and its implications for the desi community and diaspora.
The mind reels.
I have just booked a trip to England. My ostensible purpose is to get a stamp in my passport that will keep my notional residency in Her Majesty's lands legitimate. I am hedging my bets against this American episode; the stamp is my soul insurance if you will. Refugees all, we in Africa are no strangers to dislocation, in many ways it is our close friend. As the song goes, wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.