Saturday, October 6, 2012

‘Exchanging underwear not Zambian’

By Emelda Mwitwa, Zambian Daily Mail, October 4, 2012 EFFECTING the ban on the sale of second-hand underwear is timely yet is not going to be an easy battle. The Zambia Bureau of Standards needs to marshal enough resources and manpower to stop the trade across the country. From my own informal survey carried out among friends, respondents seem to be split between proponents and opponents without an apparent majority – both arguing from either the point of economic rationality or morality (public health). If one chooses to argue on the basis of morality, one will outrightly condemn the sale of second-hand underwear or rather exchanging of underwear if I may bluntly put it that way. However, the truth of the matter is that the sale of second-hand clothes, including underwear is big business with a big clientele. Salaula as the business is called, is a blessing in my lower-middle income countries to many families who are financially constrained to shop for brand new clothes in expensive retail outlets. There is no doubt that second-hand wares from the Western world have made life easier for a cross section of the population who are now able to spend more money on food and other basic necessities of life because of the cheaper and durable clothes on the market. Salaula business is also renowned for creating jobs and providing a steady income to thousands of people who otherwise would have been languishing without this imported merchandise. Second-hand goods- underwear, clothes, towels, shoes, bags, socks, bedding are consumed by both the income-poor and the middle class; of course including some of the rich people. These products, especially clothes are renowned for their durability, because most of it comes with designer labels, sold at affordable prices. With all due respect to salaula business, I have not been comfortable with the sale of used underwear, which in my view is as good as exchanging undergarments. How else would you call it if someone uses their underwear – it does not matter how short the period – and puts it up for sale in a foreign country. It is simply exchanging underwear, which is a taboo in our culture. Even in the villages where you expect to find the poorest of the poor, we may share other garments, but not underwear. Similarly at funerals, when someone dies- it does not matter how rich or smart they were, their underwear is not just on the list of items to be shared among close relatives. Our tradition without any influence from experts, appreciates the fact that exchanging underwear is unhygienic, but I wonder why second-hand underpants are treated differently. Is it because second-hand clothes are well packaged and supposedly fumigated to make them safe for transference from one person to the other? From what the Zambia Bureau of Standards are telling us, second-hand underwear are not safe with all the fumigation requirements before these products are shipped to developing countries. According to the bureau’s public relations officer, Dingase Makumba, the ban on second-hand underwear was necessitated by the bacteria found on these garments. Ms Makumba argued that used underwear contain some level of moisture which create a breeding ground for bacteria such as yeast and molds, responsible for highly infections conditions such as skin irritations and urinary tract infections. She also warned that second-hand underwear usually contain bacteria such as staphylococcus which cause boils. I also did my own research on the health hazards of second-hand underpants on the website for the Australian government’s department of health and ageing. What came out is that among the many hosts and channels of bacteria, clothes are among them. This includes undergarments, though towels were the most dreaded disease or bacterium transmitting agent. A person who has a disease caused by a bacterium germ or has an infected skin rash may leave germs on their garment or towel and the person who shares these garments is likely to catch the disease. Generally, sharing clothing is unhygienic, which is the reason why dealers in second-hand garments of any sort are required to wash them clean and fumigate their wares before offloading them on the market. There are so many diseases and infections which can be caused by sharing clothes, towels and shoes- these include scabies, lice, athlete’s foot, skin conditions and other fungal infections. From what I know, we have not had any health problems with second-hand clothes as they are evidently fumigated with a strong sanitiser, otherwise most of us would have frequently suffered from fungal infections. There is however, no harm in buyers taking own precautionary measures by sanitising second-hand clothes with an anti-bacterial solution, for instance, before using them. The most affordable method of sanitising second-hand clothes is by laundering them; then ensuring to thoroughly dry them and ironing them before use. Although these clothes may appear neat and tidy, the temptation to wear them without dry-cleaning must not even be entertained, unless one has microscopic eyesight to detect germs. In terms of risks associated with sharing clothes, underwear are even worse because according to experts at the Zambia Bureau of Standards, they normally attract moisture content which becomes breeding ground for fungi. It seems the second-hand underwear trade has been thriving on the argument that the poverty levels are high, therefore not everyone can afford brand new underpants. But if given enough sensitisations on the health hazards of exchanging underpants, people will appreciate the need to do away with “salaula briefs”. Not every person will want to trade their health for second-hand underwear if they are well informed about the possible risks. The truth of the matter is that this is a big business which is almost impossible to stop instantaneously, but can be controlled, and may be eventually put to an end if given the right approach. For as long as the used underpants continue to be offloaded on the market, they are going to sell like hotcakes, like they always do. Actually at this stage of enforcement of the law which am told came into effect sometime in 2008 but remained shelved, I am not for the idea of burning the stacks of salaula wares yet. I would rather that the law enforcers sensitise both importers and members of the public on the new law and the dangers of buying used under-wear. Reality on the ground is that many people (consumers) do not even know that the salaula underwear business is illegal because it has been going on for many years without any caution from the authorities. Enforcing a law that people do not know exits is like fighting an uphill battle. I also feel that wholesalers or importers of second-hand clothes who am sure are well informed about the ban on used undergarments, must adhere to the law because they are not being asked to abandon their business altogether. There is a wide variety of second-hand products, garments inclusive, that they can deal in and be able to run their businesses at a profit. Why should anyone smuggle used underpants into the country if they threaten public health. Nevertheless, the best way to stop the sale of used underwear is to stop their entry into the country because the wares are clearly labelled. The Zambia Bureau of Standards, which is centralised, may confiscate and torch stacks of second-hand underwear in Lusaka, but what about the many other parts of the country where the bureau does not have a presence. The only way to stop this culture of exchanging underwear is to collaborate with customs officers at ports of entry to stop the contraband; one-off inspections in selected parts of the country cannot stop it. Source