It was a couple of months ago when my friend sent me a text. It was a picture taken somewhere in Europe of a tote bag version of the ‘Ghana must go!’ bag with a TOPSHOP label on it. I wasn’t really bothered, until I saw the price! For a split second, I thought it might be fake, but deep down I knew it wasn’t.
Coincidentally later that week I had already planned to meet a friend in Oxford Street, London so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone 😊. I arrived a little early to investigate if these bags were actually being sold in TOPSHOP’s flagship store. I walked around the accessories but to my disappointment I couldn’t find them! But then…as I was walking out, I saw the chequered pattern glistening in my peripheral vision.
European fashion houses inspired by Africa
There they were, in all their TOPSHOP glory, called the ‘MARTY check unlined tote bag’ with a whopping price tag of £22! The original sized ‘Ghana must go!” bags can be found in markets (catering for African and Caribbean communities) across London for less than £5, but who knows what price they’ll fetch for now that they have the TOPSHOP stamp of approval.
The use of the ‘Ghana must go!” bag aesthetic by European fashion houses isn’t new. Louis Vuitton featured it in its Spring/Summer 2012 collection, and none other than Cristobal Balenciaga in their fall/winter 2016 collection.
So where did these bags come from?
Apparently, originally proceed in…yes you guessed it…China by Zhejiang Daxin Industry. The original bags are big and generally used to store anything and everything. Laundry, shoes, pots, pans, anything you can fit in there. They were dubbed “Ghana must go” bags by Nigerians.
In a nutshell, during the 1970’s Nigeria’s economy was booming and Ghana’s was going in the opposite direction. Ghanaians (and other West Africans from Burkina Faso, Niger and Cameroon) immigrated to Nigeria in search of better opportunities. But all good things do come to an end and in the 1980s Nigeria’s economy took a nose dive. Suddenly Nigerians where competing with these Ghanaian immigrants for the few jobs that were left.
Ghana must go!
In 1983, apparently the Nigerian government told all (illegal) immigrants to leave the country within two weeks. After the deadline Nigerians were allegedly told they could take whatever ‘action’ they wanted on those who they thought they were illegal and remained in the country. In a frenzy, with the little time they had, Ghanaians quickly packed as much as they could in these big chequered bags and left Nigeria as refugees camping at the Togo and Benin boarders on their journey back to Ghana. At the time, the mass expulsion of an estimated 1 million Ghanaians (out of around 2 million immigrants in total) was condemned internationally. But the shoe was on the other foot years before. In 1969 the Ghanaian government ordered all (illegal) immigrants to leave Ghana if they could not obtain a residence permit. Allegedly, up to 500,000 Nigerians left Ghana over three months.
You don’t have to be a ‘designer’ bag…
There’s no doubt that these bags are famous; they have various names across continents. Germany “Tuekenkoffer”, = the Turkish suitcase, in America the bags are referred to as the “Chinatown tote”. In Guyana, more affectionately as the “Guyanese Samsonite”.
The concept of European fashion houses taking something heavily associated with Africans (and other ethnic groups), stamping their name on then selling it at high prices isn’t new.
(Another) lost opportunity
I couldn’t help but think, what if Ghanaians turned a negative into a positive and made the bags more “fashionable” and sold them? But then I thought, if a Ghanaian fashion house tried to do what Louis Vuitton and now more recently TOPSHOP have done, would anyone think these bags were valuable or fashionable?
When it comes to perceived quality and value it seems the European fashion industry can do no wrong.
I’m sure people will happily buy these TOPSHOP bags, probably unbeknown to their chequered history.
Ad+s Diaspora Blog:
Snippets of an African legacy
Topshop bags, fashion accessories, Ghana must go, topshop, tote bags, London accessories, African fashion bags.