Sale of Secondhand Underwear Flourishes Despite the Ban

Despite the ban imposed on importation and sale of secondhand (locally known as salaula) underwear last year by the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZBS), the trade still flourishes. One wonders weather it is the law enforcement agencies that are toothless or, on second thought, they have found nothing wrong with the garments.

Towards the end of the year 2012 the issue of ripping used undergarments from the Zambian market was ruthlessly hot. It was there in print and on electronic media for all to see that the ban was nonnegotiable. But, today, go to any market where they sell used clothes, you will find these items being sold and bought as if there is no ban at all.

Traders talked to said come rain or shine, they wouldn’t change their business. “It is from this business that we raise money to buy food for our families and pay school fees for our children. If they stop us, how are we going to look after the orphans that we are caring for?” One woman lamented.

From such stubbornness by the sellers, it is easy to tell that the business is utterly lucrative. True to this, the stalls where these underthings are sold are never short of customers. You can find them freely sifting through the piles and meticulously selecting what they feel are the best. After the selection, a kind of bulk-buying takes place. By the end of the day the trader has made a fortune. This is what ZBS wants to outlaw.

Watching from the terraces, one may not see the bone of contention in this issue. Therefore, it is better to zero in from all angles before making any judgment. Let us consider a few sentiments.

Some circles of society claim that secondhand underwear can carry diseases like cancer and other skin infections. Above and beyond that, receiving such items from developed countries erodes the reputation of poor nations. ZBS subscribes to these reasons and thus wants to protect the Zambian citizens.

Concerning infections, some hygienists claim that when in close contact with the soft skin, especially the genitalia and breasts, contaminated knickers and bras can easily infect the person wearing them. They somehow see a link between breast cancer and imported secondhand bras.

This class of citizens also feels that it is debasing of a nation to accept discarded underclothing. One woman who sells new ladies panties bemoaned the disrespect perceived in handing down these things. She said, “I have no problem wearing my own panties even if they are not washed, and I’m not alone. But the idea of putting on those previously used by someone else, even if they are clean, I wouldn’t be comfortable, let alone a person I don’t even know.”

In addition she said, “Just as I wouldn’t want to receive used knickers, I also wouldn’t want to give them out. It would be an insult. The powers that be must just ban sale of these things and stiffen the law.”

She concluded, “It’s true, new and durable ones are expensive but I would rather have only two of such than loose my self-esteem.”

However, there is another class of the citizenry who care little about skin infections and loss of reputation. To them what matters is covering their bodies, what they use is of no concern. Such people defend used undergarments by saying that they are more enduring than new ones found at flea markets.

One ardent seller of used panties said, “New panties sold at flea markets are not durable, you just wear it twice and it gives in. But salaula ones are strong, by the time it is wearing off, you would have used it over a year.”

Asked about the infectious diseases that secondhand undies could carry, she defensively said, “They are thoroughly washed in disinfectants before being brought here. All salaula clothes have that peculiar smell; I am told that is a disinfectant.”

However, another buyer conceded that they are not exhaustively cleaned, but cautioned her fellow users to sterilize them before putting them on. About the dignity, she said, “We are a poor nation, if we want to cling to dignity, we will suffer beyond recognition.”

Thus far, we can tell that the ban is an uphill battle. Already there are mushrooming debates about the type of underwear that should be under ban. It is not clear where we place garments like, leggings, skin-tight T-shirts and socks. They too can transmit diseases when in close contact with vulnerable body parts and can melt down the ego of the person wearing them.

This evokes the need to categorically define “underwear” so that when the ban is in full force, no one feels unfairly treated.

From the foregoing, the issue appears quite turbulent but not exactly beyond domestication. All we need are local tailors with the minds to innovate, to diversify, to think beyond the obvious and good workmanship; with the right equipment, of course.

Already, there are so many who can sew complicated suits and wedding dresses. Why can’t there be one who can put together an all-weather bikini which is not overpriced by import duty? Surely there must be countless tailors with the potential to uphold the dignity neath Zambia’s sky.

If just one enterprising person started an underwear-sewing industry in the country, no doubt it would thrive and there would be no need to impose bans and argue about garments that, by African norms, are not for public discussions.