Second-hand Dresses Kill Local Markets

Blankets are spread out across the roadside on Lumumba Road in downtown Lusaka. Some are piled with ladies' dresses, skirts and tops; others with men's clothes; several with children's attire; and still more with bed linen. The goods are all worn but in good condition.

A young Zambian woman picks through the women's dresses. She says she is looking for something blue that is her size but instead she finds a brown blouse that sports the name of a well-known British fashion chain. She haggles before paying 3,000 kwacha (around 75 US cents) to the trader.

These clothes have come from western charity shops. They were donated to help causes such as cancer research, homelessness and health care. But the growth of cheap imported clothes to Britain has meant people renewing their wardrobes at a faster rate and donating the old stock to charity.

But as the bulk of donated clothes grows, charity shops find it difficult to store the clothes let alone sell them. As a result, charities sell the majority of clothing donations to second-hand dealers, who export them for profit.

Ragtex, a company in the British Midlands, collects around 100 tons of clothes a week from charities in the UK. The goods are sorted in England, shrink-wrapped into bales and shipped overseas. Woollens and warm coats go to Eastern Europe, while lighter garments are shipped to Southern and West Africa. When the clothes arrive at a port they are bought by traders, who reduce the bale sizes and sell the goods onto other traders. This happens repeatedly as the clothes move inland.

Today, every town in Zambia has a salaula market. The term comes from the local Bemba language and means 'to pick over or rummage'.

According to the aid charity, Oxfam, the second-hand clothing industry is worth $1 billion a year, worldwide. No one in Zambia knows how much money changes hands in the salaula trade, but there are concerns that it is hurting the homegrown textile industry.

Ten years ago, Zambia had 140 textile companies. Today, there are just eight. Some local farmers blame the import of second-hand clothes, but a government agriculturalist said that cotton production has been affected by a decrease in rainfall.

The Zambian government has considered imposing tariffs on the import of second-hand clothes, but protests from those who love the cheap clothing and pressure from the World Bank, which opposes trade barriers, has meant that the trade continues unabated.

Some local shopkeepers complain that they have lost business due to the import of cheap second-hand clothing. At L'il Blossom in downtown Lusaka, sales assistant Charity Musonde says the owner has dropped prices by around 40 per cent in an effort to compete with the salaula trade. But even so, the new clothes are more expensive.

Margaret Sibanda, a 25-year-old secretary in Lusaka, says she prefers to shop at the saluala stalls because the clothes are more individual: "You are unlikely to find someone wearing the same thing. But if you go to the shops you might go out and see someone in the same clothes."

But she suspects some of the clothes in the shops are second-hand from the salaula stalls. She points to a sweater than hangs limply from a coat hanger in Li'l Blossom. It has been firmly pressed but lacks newness. However, Musonde says the sweater is new and comes from Thailand.

Jeffrey Mwango, a teacher in Mpika, Northern Province, fears the import of western clothes is killing off local production of African-styled garments. He says every small shop used to employ a tailor who sat on the porch and made customized dresses and shirts from local "chitenge" cloth. "Now, it is hard to find anyone to make a shirt for me or a dress for my wife - everyone wants cast-offs from dead white men. It is degrading," he says.

However, his son is wearing a second-hand Manchester United football shirt bought at a salaula stall. The tight weave of the fabric makes Samuel Mwango,18, sweat but the young man says the shirt is his favorite. He laughs off his father's suggestion that he wear a loose shirt made from local fabric: "That is not for me!"
But while many Zambians are eagerly buying up western cast-offs, one young woman is earning a living at creating her own designs from local fabrics.

Inonge Mukanzo was orphaned at 14. She lived as a maid with relatives who treated her badly. She ran away and was given a home by a small charity that trained her in tailoring. The young girl began sewing on a borrowed treadle machine and soon earned enough to buy an electric model. Now her bold African fabrics sewn into wide sleeves and bulbous skirts are proving popular with Zambian women proud of their heritage.

Annie Banda is a large woman who prefers traditional African clothes because they are designed for women like her. "These western clothes are for stick figures - even those that are made in big sizes - they make me look bad. But our African clothes make me more elegant."

However, Banda's teenage daughter Gloria prefers the western imports. "I can find clothes no one else has - they make me feel very different," she says.
At Lusaka's City Market, second-hand clothing trader Boniface Sibanda says the salaula industry is good for the economy. He says it offers employment because the clothes need to be transported, cleaned, repaired and, sometimes, even remodeled by local tailors. He said it also provides cheap clothes for those with little cash.

Sibanda says he has never been busier. "Please tell British people to send more clothes. We like them very much," he declares. 


More by :  Yvonne Barlow

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