It all started with the blue sweater, the one my uncle Ed gave me. He was like Santa to me, even in the middle of July. Of soft blue wool, with stripes on the sleeves and an African motif across the front—two zebras walking in front of a snowcapped mountain—the sweater made me dream of places far away. I hadn’t heard of Mount Kilimanjaro, nor did I have any idea that Africa would one day find a prominent place in my heart. Still, I loved that sweater and wore it often and everywhere. I wrote my name on the tag to ensure that it would be mine forever.
In our neighborhood in Virginia in the 1970s, new clothing was a once- or twice-a-year event. We would shop in September for school and at Christmastime and then make do for the year. As the eldest of seven children, at least I didn’t have to wear many hand-me-downs, and I liked choosing my own clothes; still, I loved that blue sweater. I wore it for years—right through middle school and into my freshman year in high school—though it started to fit me differently then, hugging adolescent curves I fought mightily to ignore.
But then my high school nemesis (who would burn down the school in our senior year by throwing a Molotov cocktail into the principal’s office) ruined everything. At our school, the cool kids and athletes hung out in “Jock Hall,” the area right outside the gym. During football season, the cheerleaders would decorate the hall with crepe paper streamers while the guys strutted around like peacocks in green and gold jerseys. Only a freshman, I was breathless just to be admitted to the scene. One Friday afternoon, the captain of the team had asked me on a date right there in the middle of the hall. The very air seemed to crackle with expectation. And there was that mean kid, standing right beside me, talking to boys from the junior varsity football team about the first ski trip of the winter. He stared at my sweater, and I gave him the coldest look I could muster. “We don’t have to go anywhere to ski,” he yelled, pointing at my chest. “We can do it on Mount Novogratz.”
The other boys joined him in laughter. I died a thousand deaths. That afternoon, I marched home and announced to my mother that the vile sweater had to go. How could she have let me walk out of the house looking so mortifyingly bad? Despite my high drama, she drove me to the Goodwill in our Ford station wagon with the wood panels on the sides. Ceremoniously, we disposed of the sweater; I was glad never to have to see it again and tried hard to forget it.
Fast-forward to early 1987. Twenty-five years old, I was jogging up and down the hilly streets of Kigali, Rwanda. I’d come to the country to help establish a microfinance institution for poor women. With my Walkman playing Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help from My Friends,” I felt as if I were in a music video. On the road, women walked with bunches of yellow bananas on their heads, their hips swaying in time with the song’s rhythm. Even the tall cypress trees at the roadsides seemed to shimmy. I was in a dream on a sunny, big-sky Kigali afternoon, far away from home.
From out of nowhere, a young boy walked toward me, wearing the sweater—my sweater, the beloved but abandoned blue one. He was perhaps 10 years old, skinny, with a shaved head and huge eyes, not more than 4 feet tall. The sweater hung so low it hid his shorts, covering toothpick legs and knobby knees. Only his fingertips poked out of baggy sleeves. Still, there was no doubt: This was my sweater.
The blue sweater had made a complex journey, from Alexandria, Virginia, to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It may have gone first to a little girl in the United States, then back to the Goodwill once more before traveling across the ocean, most likely to Mombasa, on the coast of Kenya, one of Africa’s most active ports. It would have arrived after being fumigated and packed into 100-pound bales along with other pieces of cast-off clothing, everything from T-shirts sold at bars at the Jersey shore to overcoats to evening gowns. The bales would have been sold to secondhand clothing distributors, who would allow retailers to discard the useless pieces and buy what they thought they could sell. Over time, many of those secondhand clothing traders would move into the middle class.
The story of the blue sweater has always reminded me of how we are all connected. Our actions—and inaction—touch people we may never know and never meet across the globe. The story of the blue sweater is also my personal story: Seeing my sweater on that child renewed my sense of purpose in Africa. At that point in my own journey, my worldview was shifting. I’d begun my career as an international banker, discovering the power of capital, of markets, and of politics, as well as how the poor are so often excluded from all three. I wanted to understand better what stands between poverty and wealth.
It had been a long and winding road getting to Rwanda in the first place—an unimagined outcome of choices made, sometimes with a sense of purpose, at times with reason, and sometimes simply by choosing the less traveled paths.