Would you risk your health just to save a few shillings? That’s the question that Tanzania Bureau of Standards (TBS) wants you to answer after it launched a nationwide crackdown on secondhand undergarments currently on sale at local markets.
The bureau aimed at implementing a ban effected in 2009 when the country outlawed second-hand underwear for health-related reasons.
After the ban, TBS officers raided Tandika Market in Dar es Salaam, a popular site for the trade of used garments, and confiscated imported secondhand underwear that were on sale.
TBS inspector Emmanuel Simon said the operation is aimed at ensuring secondhand underclothing is not used by Tanzanians over risks of contracting skin diseases. “The campaign is in accordance with the Standards Act of 2009 that prevents the use of secondhand undergarments,” he said.
Alex William, 26, is a businessman who has been selling secondhand underwear and brassieres for nine years. For almost a decade he has depended on that business for his livelihood.
“In the nine years I’ve been in this trade not once have I ever received any complaints from a client regarding a skin condition that was related to the secondhand undergarments sold to them,” he says.
He adds that most women prefer secondhand clothes, locally known as ‘mitumba’ because they are durable, cheap and unique.
Imported secondhand undergarments go through inspection before they make it to the market. “When we open bales we separate dirty clothes from ones that appear clean.
Those that can be washed are thoroughly cleaned, while others that are in completely bad shape are thrown away altogether,” Alex explains.
The business of selling secondhand clothes is lucrative. A visit to some famous local markets such as Mwenge, Tandika and Ilala will reveal just how popular these clothes are. Women flock in doves just to get their hands on secondhand undergarments. There have been instances where the scramble to pick out the best used underwear led to physical altercation between women.
Such is the real situation on the ground when it comes to relevance of secondhand undergarments.
Used clothes have created employment for hundreds of young men and women. In the same vein, the government also benefits from charging 25 per cent import tax and 20 per cent Value Added Tax (VAT).
Another famous seller of secondhand undergarments, who preferred anonymity, said used underwear and bras are still being sold at the normal retail price that starts from Sh500 per article of clothing.
Shaban Juma, a vendor who operates his secondhand clothes business in Mwenge, Dar es Salaam, says that they [sellers] have started losing customers. “On a normal business day I used to sell up to Sh100,000 worth of clothing per day, but now on a good day I only manage to sell not more than Sh50000,” he laments.
From receiving multiple calls from women on a regular basis making inquiries on when the next ‘goods’ will be opened, Shaban’s phone has been silent for a while now. “I have created good connections through networking with different clients in this business. I cannot imagine myself turning to another business now,” he says.
Shaban has a family that depends on him. He has children who are in school, but now their future looks bleak as their father tries to navigate through this trying time.
Most women activists have been mum on this matter. When this reporter contacted one of them for comment on the issue, her response was filled with disdain and a pure lack of interest – stating that this ‘issue’ is not an important matter. But a look at how many women will be affected paints a different picture.
Tanzania is among the countries in Africa with a high demand for secondhand clothes. The local textiles industry cannot meet market demand in terms of quality and quantity. Therefore used clothes such as underwear fill the gap by providing quality and affordable clothes.
The health risks associated with secondhand underwear cannot be left unnoticed. According to Dr Venant Mboneko, a medical officer at Mbezi Medical Clinic, secondhand undergarments are not entirely safe for use because some of them may contain bacteria which might affect the wearer.
The doctor explained that the process of collecting and storing these clothes may not be safe; some of them can become contaminated due to poor preservation methods. Such clothes contain creams and detergents which may cause different skin diseases.
Most women buy secondhand underwear, barely wash it and proceed to wear it. This is highly risky due to all the health-related issues associated with used underwear.
“There are some bacteria and fungi which cannot be removed easily; normal disinfectant cannot kill them, I have dealt with a few cases especially from young girls who experienced bad reaction after wearing secondhand brassieres for the first time,” said the doctor.
Used undergarments are sold relatively cheap in comparison to prices charged at high-end stores in the city and upcountry. As a result, most women in urban and rural areas buy used underwear in bulks, making Tanzania a dumping site for secondhand clothes.
Not all women prefer wearing secondhand undergarments, Mkunde Msuya, 26, a Goba resident detests wearing used clothes. “I can’t imagine myself wearing an underwear that has been used before,” she says, adding, “It lowers a woman’s self-esteem and is very bad.”
Mkunde further says that most women are unaware of the effects of wearing secondhand underwear. “Poverty is not an excuse enough for one to risk their health,” she says. As a buyer of underwear from regular boutiques, Mkunde says that new undergarments aren’t that costly as people might think. From Sh2,000 you can get a good underwear from a nice boutique in town.
Another added advantage of buying new underwear from regular shops, is that getting your right size isn’t very hard. “Instead of wasting time combing through multiple used undergarments looking for a size that fits you, you buying new underwear from a shop saves you that time as different sizes are readily displayed for your inspection,” says Mkunde.
The sensitivity of a woman’s genital area makes it easy for them to contract any form of infection.
Jacqueline Maro, 40, a Dar es Salaam resident has experienced the bitter end of wearing secondhand undergarments. After hearing a lot of praise about secondhand underwear, she decided to buy a few. However, soon after she started wearing them, frequent visits to the hospital started. “I was in the hospital almost every month because of fungi and other urinary tract infections, I took a lot of medicines to cure the problem but it kept recurring” says Jacqueline.
Doctors couldn’t immediately identify what the problem was that was causing Jacqueline such health problems. “
After a while it was discovered that it was the ‘mitumba’ I was wearing that were causing me all the complications,” she says.
Jacqueline decided to stop wearing secondhand undergarments and from that time on she’s never had to visit the hospital with similar health complications.
The quality and texture of secondhand underwear is what most women find appealing – and it is something that Mwajuma Bakari knows too well about. “It’s true that you can find cheap new undergarments in big shops, but I just prefer wearing used underwear. They are very genuine and comfortable,” she says.
Sellers and buyers of secondhand clothes will tell you that most of them are made from pure cotton. So at a cost that is two times lower than what big shops charge, it doesn’t come as a surprise that most women opt to buy used underwear.